Staying in college an extra year or two can cost tens of thousands of dollars in fees and expenses, plus more in lost earnings. Attending an inexpensive college with a low four-year graduation rate ultimately may cost more than attending a more expensive school with a strong track record of graduating students on time.
Statewide, just two in five freshmen who started at a four-year college in California in 2008 graduated in 2012, according to new data from the National Center for Education Statistics. California students now typically take five or six years to graduate.
There are exceptions. Five affiliated private colleges in Claremont – Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd – each had four-year graduation rates of 80 percent or higher.
Cal Tech and Occidental College also boast four-year graduation rates of 80 percent or higher. Stanford, Santa Clara University, USC and Pepperdine all had four-year graduation rates above 75 percent.
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Among public colleges, the highest four-year graduation rates were at UCLA and UC Berkeley; both had rates near 70 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, just 1 percent of freshmen at the University of Phoenix-California graduated in four years, federal data show. The four-year graduation rate at Ashford University was 4 percent. At the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, it was 5 percent. All three schools are for-profit institutions.
Among public colleges, four-year graduation rates were lowest at CSU-Dominguez Hills (5 percent), CSU-Los Angeles (6 percent), and CSU-Sacramento (8 percent).
Graduation rates can be affected by family income, as well as rising tuition: Students who need to work long hours to help cover tuition and fees often take longer to graduate. Students whose high schools have not fully prepared them for college also have trouble graduating in four years, because they have to start with remedial classes.
Conditions at the college also can play a role. Students at CSU campuses often complain about the difficulty of enrolling in classes required for graduation because of overcrowding, a problem exacerbated by budget cuts during the recession. Sacramento State president Robert Nelsen has made improving graduation rates a top priority and has set a goal of 25 percent of students graduating within four years.
Four-year graduation rates in California have nonetheless improved in the last decade, rising from about 31 percent in 2002 to roughly 39 percent in 2012, federal data show.
This chart shows the four-year graduation rates at the 80 largest colleges in California, ranked by schools with the highest graduation rates, according to data submitted by the colleges to the U.S. Department of Education.
Note: Shown are full-time, first-time, degree-seeking students who entered school in 2008 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2012 at the same school. Dropouts, transfers and completions that take more than four years lower an institution's rate. Only includes institutions offering bachelor's degrees. Eighty largest universities chosen by size of their entering freshmen classes.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Updates: Fixed duplicate entry for Cal Poly-SLO at 2 PM on 2/11. The text, but not the accompanying graphic, of an earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the graduation rate for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to the Art Institute of California. Those are separate institutions and the error has been corrected.