College graduation is an indicator of the quality of the state's K-12 and higher education resources. High college enrollment and degree numbers also benefit Virginia by contributing to the quality of the workforce and its earnings potential.
Why is This Important?
College graduation is one measure of the success of our post-secondary education system. Degree numbers in turn depend on Virginia's success in enrolling students and ensuring that they graduate. Attendance rates shortly after high school also give an indication of the interest in and demand for these higher education services.
How is Virginia doing?
College degree rates are measured as the number of degrees awarded by degree level per 100,000 residents. Virginia's degree rate has generally risen steadily for associate's, bachelor’s, and graduate / professional degrees. In 2004, the degree rate was 188 per 100,000 residents for associate's, 478 for bachelor's and 209 for graduate/professional degrees. In 2014, those rates stood at 303, 670, and 351, respectively.
Graduates per 100,000 residents: By degree and state, 2014
|United States (average)||314.7||586.4||292.3|
|Arizona - leading associate's||621.6||910.3||486.3|
|Rhode Island - leading bachelor's||358.2||1,085.6||319.5|
|Massachusetts - leading Grad/Prof||209.4||870.4||657.6|
In 2014, Virginia’s associate's degree rate of 303 ranked 26th among the states and below the national average of 315 per 100,000 people. The rate for bachelor's degrees -- 670 -- was above the national average of 586 and ranked Virginia 17th. Graduate/professional degree production in Virginia (350) was also above the national average of 292 and ranked Virginia 14th.
The national leaders were again Arizona for associate's degrees (622) and Massachusetts for graduate/professional degrees (658); Rhode Island became the new leader for bachelor's degrees with 1,086. Among Virginia’s neighbors, Maryland produced more graduate / professional degrees (357). However, Virginia did lead the region in bachelor’s and associate’s degrees.
Virginia's 3-year graduation rate for students seeking an associate's degree has been essentially flat since 2009, though it had been slowly rising earlier in the decade. In 2009, the graduation rate was 30.4 percent; in 2014, that rate stood at 29.1 percent, ranking Virginia 20th nationally and below the national average of 30.7 percent. Virginia's rate is above North Carolina (17.5%) and Maryland (20.1%), but lower than Tennessee (37.1%). Alaska had the highest associate's degree graduation rate in the nation in 2014 at 72.4 percent. [See Data Definitions and Sources]
Virginia fares much better with 4-year degrees: Its rate of graduation for bachelor's degrees within six years is 10th in the nation. The baccalaureate graduation rate in Virginia stayed steady at 65.7 percent in 2014 -- a rate higher than Tennessee (51.9%), North Carolina (61.2%), and Maryland (65.6%). The highest ranking state was again Massachusetts, with a bachelor's degree graduation rate of 70.7 percent in 2014.
Graduation Rates with Transfers and Other Movements
The above data tracks only those students who remain in the same school before gaining an associate's or baccalaureate degree. However, many students start out at one institution and then transfer to another over the course of their college education; quite a few transfer from community colleges or other 2-year schools to a 4-year college, while others switch schools completely (including to those in other states).
Another measure of graduation rates takes these movements into account; under these scenarios, Virginia's performance is even better. 2014 baccalaureate graduation rates for full-time students who started out at a 4-year public college in Virginia are the second highest in the nation (among reporting states): 89.7 percent, just below leading state Iowa with 91.1 percent. Virginia's peer states are all lower: Tennessee (81.7%), North Carolina (85.9%), and Maryland (87.1%). The national average for 2014 is 82.5 percent.
Similarly, 2014 graduation rates for full-time students who began their postsecondary education in a 2-year public college in Virginia are also high: 64.7 percent, the 7th highest among reporting states. Again, Virginia's peer states are lower: Maryland (53.9%), North Carolina (55.3%), and Tennessee (62.4%). The national average is 57.0 percent; North Dakota is the leading state, with a graduation rate of 77.1 percent.
Degrees per Capita by Region
Another way to gauge college attainment is to look at the rate of degrees earned at Virginia colleges by region of student origin. Measured as degrees per 100,000 residents, these rates have generally begun to level off in recent years. On average, associate's degrees issued dropped from 222 in 2013 to 217 in 2014 and 2015. Bachelor's degrees rose from 417 in 2014 to 423 in 2015.
In 2015 students from the Southside region again earned the most associate's degrees (341) and the Central region again had the fewest (168). Conversely, the Northern region earned the most bachelor's degrees per 100,000 residents (480), while the Southwest region had the fewest (203).
College Attendance and Persistence
The overall college attendance rate for graduating high school seniors (at both two-year and four-year schools) was 71.9 percent in 2014, up very slightly from 71.8 percent in 2013. The highest rate was again found in the Northern region, where 79.6 percent of seniors went on to enroll in college. The Eastern region had the lowest college attendance rate at 59.6 percent, yet another decline from the 67.2 percent for their 2009 graduates.
Other enrollment patterns are also holding steady: Since 2009, high school graduates in more densely populated regions -- Northern, Central, Hampton Roads -- have been more likely to enroll in 4-year schools; conversely, enrollment in 2-year community colleges has been much higher in more rural regions of the state across the same period, particularly in the Southwest and Southside regions.
For example, although an average of 43.2 percent of Virginia's graduating seniors in 2014 enrolled in a 4-year college within 16 months of their high school graduation, more than half (52.7%) of graduates in the Northern region did so. The lowest 4-year college attendance rates were in the Southwest (21.4%) and Southside (27.4%) regions.
The enrollment rate in 2-year colleges for graduating high school seniors was 28.7 percent statewide in 2014, similar to what it's been since 2009. The Southwest and Southside regions had the highest percentages -- 46.4 and 39.2 percent, respectively -- of students attending a 2-year college program after graduation.
Approximately 66 percent of 2012 Virginia high school graduates who enrolled in a public institution of higher education earned one year of college credit within two years of attending a Virginia public college. This rate is up from 62.3 percent for the 2011 cohort of graduates who enrolled in college -- and finally surpasses the 64.6 percent earning credit in 2008. The highest completion rate was in the Northern region (68.4%); the lowest rate was in the Eastern region (57.5%).
What Influences College Graduation Rates?
College graduation rates are primarily influenced by three factors: level of student preparation for college; affordability of college and access to financial aid; and institutional efforts at retention.
College enrollment and high school seniors' plans to attend college are also influenced by a variety of factors, including:
- availability of opportunities in the region and in the state
- preparation in high school
- financial cost of higher education
- guidance & career counseling
- family educational background
Costs and Affordability
The affordability of higher education has become a serious concern in recent years, as tuition and other costs have risen markedly since 2000, while average family income has stagnated. Cost increases are largely due to two serious economic recessions and their attendant decreases in public funding of higher education, though swelling college enrollments -- up an average of 32 percent nationally between 2001 and 2011 -- are also a factor.
Virginia is hardly immune from these trends and forces. According to a 2015 report from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), the state "currently provides only about half as much support per full-time (FTE) student at public institutions as it did in 2001. Virginia ranked 35th nationwide in state funding per FTE as of 2011-2012, and it has seen average tuition as a share of family income at public four-year institutions rise by 3.9% (slightly above the national average) from 2008 to 2012."
Average costs (in constant dollars) for public 4-year institutions in Virginia have risen 71 percent since FY2004, while costs for 2-year schools increased 51 percent over the same period. National comparisons for FY2014 show that in-state tuition and fees at Virginia institutions ranked the Commonwealth 11th highest at doctoral/research institutions, 6th highest at universities (e.g., James Madison University), and 19th highest at community colleges.
Typically it is the poor and near-poor who are most affected by rising prices, with some families paying as much as 69 percent of their annual family income for the net costs of college in 2014, while those same costs comprised only 13% of family income for the median highest-income student. Even among middle-class families, such financial burdens -- including the added cost and length of loans to cover these expenses -- have begun to affect student choice, retention, and graduation rates.
What is the State's Role?
The state education system works to graduate students who have the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to successfully complete postsecondary education. This includes ensuring that:
- high school standards are rigorous and aligned with college expectations
- low-income students have access to financial aid
- a coordinated system of higher education, with adequate resources and infrastructure to meet demands, is robust and varied enough to create a broad range of options for Virginia students
In addition, programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate allow students to earn college credits while still in high school. New credit and transfer arrangements, especially between the state's community colleges and 4-year schools, give students increased flexibility in realizing their higher education goals, while new decision tools like the Virginia Education Wizard provide detailed information and guidance to both students and parents when choosing which school and program of study to invest in.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
Degrees awarded: Digest of Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/
Graduation rates within 150% of normal time: IPEDS Graduation Rate Survey,
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
IPEDS Trend Generator, nces.ed.gov/ipeds/trendgenerator/default.aspx
NOTE: Alaska's graduation rate in 2011 for associate's degrees jumped markedly due to two factors: 1) the low number of degree-granting institutions there, and 2) the addition of one private, for-profit institution with a very large degree yield.
Bachelor's degree-seeking students: Percentage of first-time, full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students earning any formal award (certificate, associate, or bachelors degree) within six years—Title IV degree-granting institutions.
Associate degree-seeking students: Percentage of first-time full-time associate degree-seeking students earning any formal award (certificate, associate) within three years—Title IV degree-granting institutions.
NOTE: These calculations do not account for transfers across institutions.
Six-year graduation rates for full-time, degree-seeking students who started at 4-year and 2-year institutions:
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Signature Report State Supplement
NOTE: 2014 student transfer coverage is incomplete for several states (NJ, NM, NY, OK for 4-year and AR, KS, MT, SD, TX, UT for 2-year). Also, completion rates are not reported for states in which three or fewer institutions exist (AK, DE, RI for 4-year and NV, RI for 2-year).
High School Postsecondary Enrollment Report, State Council for Higher Education in Virginia
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund Indicator (C)(11)
Enrollment is based on postsecondary institutions nationwide
High School Postsecondary Achievement Report, State Council for Higher Education in Virginia
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund Indicator (C)(12)
College credit achievement is based on Virginia public higher education institutions.
Total Degrees Awarded by Student Origin, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
Costs of College
National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: College Tuition
The Delta Cost Project, Trends in College Spending 2003-2013 (pdf)
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Deeper State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV):
- The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education: Evidence from Public Institutions in Virginia (pdf)
- 2015-16 Tuition and Fees at Virginia's State-Supported Colleges and Universities (pdf)
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.