College Graduation

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College Graduation

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?

Virginia Residents by Degree Level Achieved. See text for explanation.
Degree Rates

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 2006, the degree rate was 209 per 100,000 residents for associate's, 507 for bachelor's and 229 for graduate/professional degrees. In 2015, those rates stood at 305, 679, and 348, respectively.

Graduates per 100,000 residents: By degree and state, 2015

State Associate's Bachelor's Grad/Prof
United States (average) 315.5 589.6 291.6
Virginia 304.8 678.5 347.8
North Carolina 317.4 526.6 219.8
Tennessee 194.3 518.1 234.4
Maryland 281.7 553.1 356.7
Arizona - leading associate's 552.2    
Rhode Island - leading bachelor's   1110.5  
Massachusetts - leading Grad/Prof     653.0

In 2015, Virginia’s associate's degree rate of 305 ranked 25th among the states and below the national average of 316 per 100,000 people. Its rate for bachelor's degrees -- 679 -- was well above the national average of 590 and ranked Virginia 16th. Graduate/professional degree production in Virginia (348) was also above the national average of 292, but represents a decline from the previous year and ranked Virginia 16th.

The national leaders were again Arizona for associate's degrees (552), Rhode Island for bachelor's degrees (1,111), and Massachusetts for graduate/professional degrees (653). Among Virginia’s neighbors, Maryland produced more graduate / professional degrees (357). However, Virginia did lead the region in bachelor’s degrees.

Graduation rates

Three-Year Graduation Rates, Associates Degree. See text for explanation. 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 2015, that rate stood at 30.5 percent, ranking Virginia 21st nationally and below the national average of 31.6 percent. Virginia's rate is above North Carolina (20.3%) and Maryland (22.7%), but lower than Tennessee (39.3%). Alaska again had the highest associate's degree graduation rate in the nation in 2015 at 68.2 percent. [See Data Definitions and Sources]

Six-Year Graduation Rates, Bachelor's Degree. See text for explanation.Virginia fares much better with 4-year degrees: Its rate of graduation for bachelor's degrees within six years is 11th in the nation. The baccalaureate graduation rate in Virginia stayed steady at 65.7 percent in 2015 -- a rate higher than Tennessee (50.2%) and North Carolina (60.6%), but lower than Maryland (67.1%). The highest ranking state was again Massachusetts, with a bachelor's degree graduation rate of 71.8 percent in 2015.

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).

6-year Graduation Rates for Students Starting at a 4-Year School. See text for explanation.Another measure of graduation rates takes these movements into account; under these scenarios, Virginia's performance is even better. 2015 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): 89.2 percent, just below leading state Iowa with 92.2 percent. Virginia's peer states are all lower: Tennessee (80.8%), North Carolina (85.5%), and Maryland (87.2%). The national average for 2015 is 81.2 percent.

6-year graduation rates for full-time students starting out at 2-year schools. See text for explanation.Similarly, 2015 graduation rates for full-time students who began their postsecondary education in a 2-year public college in Virginia are also high -- and improving: 67.3 percent, the 5th highest among reporting states. Again, Virginia's peer states are lower: Maryland (55.6%), North Carolina (52.3%), and Tennessee (59.6%). The national average is 54.5 percent; Minnesota is the leading state, with a graduation rate of 74.2 percent.

Degrees per Capita by Region

Associate's Degrees Earned by Native Virginians at VA Schools. See text for explanation.

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 generally improved in 2016, from an average of 217 in 2014 and 2015 to 224 for associate's degrees. Bachelor's degrees rose again as well, from 423 in 2015 to 428 in 2016.

Bachelor's Degrees Earned by Native Virginians at VA Schools. See text for explanation.

In 2016 students from the Southside region again earned the most associate's degrees (389) and the Central region again had the fewest (174). Conversely, the Northern region earned the most bachelor's degrees per 100,000 residents (496), while the Southwest region had the fewest (227).

College Attendance and Persistence

College Attendance among High School Graduates in Virginia, by Virginia region. See text for explanation.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.

High School Graduates Attending 4-Year Colleges, by Region.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.

High School Graduates Attending 2-Year College, by Virginia region. See text for explanation. 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.

High School Graduates Earning College Credit, by Virginia Region. See text for explanation.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.

Page last modified June 08, 2017

Virginia Residents by Degree Level, Achieved 3-Year Graduation Rates for Associate's Degrees, by State 6-Year Graduation Rates for Bachelor's Degrees, by State College Graduation Rates of Students Starting at 4-year Public Institutions College Graduation Rates of Students Starting at 4-year Public Institutions Associates degrees earned by Virginians. Bachelors degrees earned by Virginians by region. High School Graduates Attending College by Region High School Graduates Attending 2-year College by Region High School Graduates Attending 4-year College by Region High School Graduates Earning 1 Year of College Credit, by Region


State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

State-Level Data

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

Degrees awarded: Digest of Education Statistics,

Graduation rates within 150% of normal time: IPEDS Graduation Rate Survey, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
IPEDS Trend Generator,
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).

Regional Data

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
LD05 Report

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):

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
College Graduation in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is improving.
State Influence:  

National Ranking: In 2015 (latest date available) Virginia ranked 11th in the nation for bachelor's degrees awarded within 6 years and 21st for associate's degrees attained within 3 years.

Virginia by Region: In 2014, 72% of graduating high school seniors went on to attend college -- 29% at 2-year schools and 43% at 4-year ones.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

Early College Scholars allows eligible high school seniors to earn at least 15 hours of transferable credits toward a college degree, giving them a more productive senior year and reducing the expense of college tuition. Students earn these credits through dual-enrollment programs and by taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses at their home high schools or through the Virginia Virtual AP School.

The Virginia Virtual AP School offers a variety of Advanced Placement courses, allowing students to earn college credit even if their own high school cannot offer such courses.

The Virginia Community College System and four-year colleges in Virginia have developed system-wide articulation and transfer agreements that allow for transfers from community college to four-year institutions for students meeting articulation requirements.

The Virginia Education Wizard helps college-bound students (both 2- and 4-year) research, plan, and apply for schools through a host of interactive apps on colleges and careers. The site also helps families navigate college tuition issues via Web calculators and other tools.

Two publicly supported colleges -- Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the College of William and Mary (CWM) -- are experimenting with new tuition models in an attempt to help keep college affordable for their students. At CWM, new in-state undergraduate students are promised no tuition increases if they successfully graduate in four years. VCU's approach is to offer students "block pricing" for all semester credit loads between 12 and 18 credit hours.

Virginia 529 allows families to put money aside for college tuition and take advantage of certain tax savings established by the IRS. There are two basic 529 plan options – prepaid tuition programs and savings programs. The tax benefits of 529 plans are similar to those for 401K retirement savings, but upon withdrawal earnings remain tax free when used for qualified higher education expenses. 

Additional Information

The Academic Common Market (ACM) is a tuition-savings program that allows students in participating states to pay in-state tuition rates at out-of-state public institutions while studying in certain programs not available in their home state. 

Project Discovery and An Achievable Dream are two Virginia-based programs that help qualified students enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Community partnerships provide tutoring, mentoring, and information on college preparation and financial aid while emphasizing the need for core academic preparation.