Graduation rates in America compared to Europe might not look great, but the costs and benefits go deeper than degree completion.
Many advocates for higher education reform want to go abroad, calling for the American education system to reflect other Western countries. A European Commission report found that graduation rates across the EU, admittedly with data issues, outperform the United States. That could bolster reform based on systems abroad.
Of the 14 countries, only Hungary and Sweden have lower graduation rates than the United States.
- United Kingdom, 82 percent
- Denmark, 81 percent
- France, 80 percent
- Finland, 76 percent
- Netherlands, 76 percent
- Turkey, 75 percent
- Belgium, 73 percent
- Czech Republic, 72 percent
- Norway, 71.5 percent
- Slovakia, 71 percent
- Portugal, 67 percent
- Poland, 62 percent
- Hungary, 53 percent
- Sweden, 53 percent
Germany isn’t included in the report, but its 2005 graduation rate of 77 percent beats the United States as well.
The six-year graduation rate for American college graduates is 59 percent as of 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Department of Education prefers to cite six-year graduation rates, as the four-year graduation rate is 39.4 percent and many students don’t complete a four-year degree in four years.
Comparison isn’t as simple because two calculation methods are used, which makes the figures a bit wonky, the Times of Higher Education notes. The data isn’t always up-to-date, either. Swedish data, for instance, is from 2002-2003, Norway from 1999-2000, Denmark from 2000-2001, and Czech Republic from 2001.
Those numbers don’t necessarily mean graduation rates are better at European universities. Some countries, such as Germany, define their graduation rate over eight years, and Belgium over 5 years.
“It seems that either study success is not a prominent issue in many countries or that national discussions are based on different information or indicators, such as the absolute number of graduates,” the EC report noted.
The American focus on graduation rates as an indicator of efficiency or a high-standard university isn’t the European focus.
Time-to-degree rates vary as well. Belgian students can finish as quickly as 3.15 years, but German students can take up to 7 years.
Some countries, such as Poland, Norway, and The Netherlands, offer financial incentives for completion, but no financial penalties are incurred for high dropout or incompletion rates.
France has been admired by Americans for its low costs, and Australia for its student loan system. The flexibility of the American system, however, seems to be a trade-off. France, as well as Germany and the United Kingdom, tracks students, and makes it difficult for them to enroll at a college if they weren’t on a narrow track. In the United States, open-enrollment at community colleges and a flexibility for non-traditional students makes a college degree a reality for many, albeit an expensive one.
Even in Belgium, greater flexibility that allows students to take courses at other colleges in the country, while staying at their main institution, hasn’t improved completion. “Regardless of the fact that the decree facilitates access to higher education, it has slightly negative effects on study success,” the EC noted. With greater flexibility comes slower graduation.
Restricting access can improve completion rates and lower overall university costs, but the action would limit opportunity.
Indeed, flexibility makes college completion in America look worse than it is. If for-profit colleges and community colleges are excluded from graduation rates, where most non-traditional students enroll, American graduation rates look better.
The four-year graduation rate for nonprofit institutions is 52.8 percent, but only 22.5 percent at for-profit institutions. Six-year rates improve as colleges become more selective. Some students gamble on the benefits of a degree, but flexibility and opportunity in the American system lets students calculate risk and reward, even though it makes the system look bad in comparison abroad.
The difficulty, then, is rooting out the benefits and costs to students and to the government, and which policies could improve the system while keeping it characteristically American.