Why Have College Graduation Rates Increased?

Is college easier now than it was in the past?

By Alex Chediak Published on June 18, 2019

College graduation rates decreased from the 1970s to 1990. But since 1990, they’ve been on the rise. Why? It’s a great question, because it’s the opposite of what we would have expected.

Student Characteristics Suggest Declining Graduation Rates

We know that students are working more hours, juggling part-time or even full-time jobs. Even among the few who aren’t, study times are down. You’d think less time studying would lead to lower graduation rates.

What about the cost side? In the past, researchers have found that higher college costs lead to lower graduation rates. Financial shortfalls cause some students to tap out. Well, with state support for public four-year colleges on the decline since 1985, and most students attending public schools, net prices to students have been rising. But so are graduation rates at these same public schools.

What about the quality of incoming students? College enrollment rates have increased from about 50 percent of high school graduates in 1975 to about 70 percent in 2010. Are high school seniors getting academically stronger? The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tracks the math and reading competency of 17-year old students. Scores are flat since the 1970s. So if high school seniors, on average, aren’t getting better, but more of them are going to college, that means the extra enrollment is probably coming from the lower portion of the academic spectrum. Meaning college students, on average, are less well-prepared. This assessment is supported by the high percentage of college freshmen who are now taking remedial courses.

According to a lengthy working paper from a pair of economics professors at Brigham Young University, it’s because academic standards for graduation have declined.

So what gives? Students are less academically prepared, they’re studying less, and college costs more. Yet graduation rates have increased, especially at public colleges, which most students attend.

According to a lengthy working paper from a pair of economics professors at Brigham Young University, it’s because academic standards for graduation have declined.

Easier to Graduate?

We know college GPAs have been rising. Why GPAs are rising is debatable, but here’s what matters: College GPAs — even for just the first year — are highly predictive of graduation. The change in the probability of graduation is largest for first year GPAs between 1.00 and 2.50. If your GPA is below 1.00 after the first year, you’re not on track to graduate. If it’s above 2.50, there’s a good chance you’re going to reach the finish line. The freshmen-to-sophomore continuation rate shapes and predicts a college’s four- or six-year graduation rate. Many schools have minimum GPAs of 1.67–2.00 (C- to C) to avoid academic probation or to continue on to upper division courses within a major.

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The BYU authors were looking at the eight-year graduation rates among those who attended college within two years of graduating high school in 1992 and 2004. From the former to the latter, first-year average GPAs increased from 2.44 to 2.65. More notably, 11 percent more students had a GPA above 2.00 in the 2004 cohort than in the 1992 group. Moreover, GPAs seem to be rising the most in the sweet spot where it most counts — that critical 1.00–2.50 range.

The authors analyzed if changes in the students themselves could have accounted for these GPA boosts. What they found is that equally prepared students with the same family income, parental education, gender and type of college have higher college GPAs if they graduated high school in 2004 than if they did so in 1992.

Alternative Explanations

Could the 2004 group be more commonly choosing easier majors than the 1992 group? The authors explored this, and found that it doesn’t seem to be the case.

Might colleges be doing a better job helping their students graduate? Maybe. The increase in graduation rates is concentrated in public colleges and universities. On the one hand, academic spending per student has declined at these schools. On the other hand, it could be that academic interventions are becoming more effective, thanks to the use of technology and data analytics.

While all colleges have a financial incentive to retain students over the four-year sequence, public schools are increasingly seeing their per-pupil funding tied to their graduation rates. Meaning they have a unique financial incentive to get students across the finish line.

Could it be that while students are studying less, they’re studying more efficiently? Technology, for example, has made it easier to write a research paper than in the pre-Internet era. Maybe. But it’s not clear that the efficiency gains from technology would extend to all academic disciplines. In any event, it’s hard to test this concept. The larger problem may be that published data on student study times vary widely.


The authors note that declining graduation standards would predict a decline in the college wage premium — the extra income a college graduate can expect to earn relative to a non-grad. In other words, making it easier to graduate would lower the value of the degree. But the college premium remains substantial over the past couple of decades, per a credible report published just this month:

graph college

All in all, it seems too early to draw any definitive conclusions. But the theory that graduation rates may be rising due to declining standards seems worthy of further attention.


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter @chediak.

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