In March, The Chronicle of Higher Education, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, produced a microsite of college completion: it seeks to show “Who graduates from college, who doesn’t, and why it matters.” With data on 3,800 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., you can easily waste a lunch break (or two) exploring the site.

There are myriad ways to parse this data. You can look at individual institutions, institutions by state, types of institutions, and demographics within institutions. I looked at graduation rates among Virginia’s 4-year colleges by type of institution: public (15 colleges), private (28 colleges), and for-profit (17 colleges).

Virginia’s public colleges fare quite well nationally, ranking 2nd in four-year graduation rates (behind Delaware) and 4th in six-year graduation rates (behind Delaware, Iowa, and Washington). Public colleges fare somewhat better on this metric than do Virginia’s private colleges, and much better than the for-profit colleges in Virginia. Though Virginia ranks high relative to other states, only half of the students at Virginia’s public colleges are graduating in 4 years.

Graduation Rates and Spending in Virginia’s 4-Year Colleges

Of course, Virginia’s public and private colleges spend about twice as much as the for-profits do for each degree awarded to achieve those better graduation rates.

Some caveats: The data only reflect full-time, first-time students who started college in fall 2004 at a school with at least 100 undergraduates. Increasingly, students go to college part time, transfer between institutions, or return to college as adults – this is particularly true for students at for-profit colleges. Folks in these college trajectories aren’t captured by the official graduation rate (defined by the Department of Education). The Chronicle of Higher Education has multiple essays debating the usefulness of these measures in gauging college quality linked to the college completion website.

Michele Claibourn is a Research Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where she specializes in statistical modeling and civic engagement. She’s the author of Presidential Campaigns and Presidential Accountability.
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