When 4-year colleges and universities report their graduation rates, they are reporting the percentage of first-time freshmen who completed a bachelor’s degree at that institution within a certain time period. Institutions usually do not know what happened to the students who left without a degree. When students leave an institution, they may either leave postsecondary education permanently or transfer somewhere else. From the institutional perspective, all students who leave before completing a degree at that institution are considered to be dropouts. From the perspectives of students as well as of the postsecondary education system as a whole, transfers are not dropouts: they are persisting students who have decided to attend a different institution. In this report, the term institutional completion rate is used to describe bachelor’s degree attainment of students at the first institution they attended, and the term student completion rate is used to describe bachelor’s degree attainment anywhere, regardless of whether or not students stayed at the original institution.
Among all beginners at 4-year institutions in 199596, 51 percent completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years at the first institution attended. However, when those who transferred out of the first institution are also included, the percentage of beginners who actually completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years (at any 4-year institution) increases to 58 percent.