AAC&U News, September 2017
Facts & Figures

Reexamining Completion Rates at Minority-Serving Institutions

A recent report from the American Council on Education (ACE) presents a more robust—and often more positive—picture of graduation rates at minority-serving institutions than was previously available through federal graduation rates. The report, Pulling Back the Curtain: Enrollment and Outcomes at Minority Serving Institutions, compares data pulled from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) with the federal graduation rates for first-time degree-seeking students who began their studies in 2007. According to the report’s analysis, NSC graduation rates for “exclusively full-time” students—the closest point of comparison to the federal data—rose dramatically compared to federal data at almost all types of minority-serving institutions.

While these results are promising, completion is only one metric involved in measuring student success, and the report cautions that examining graduation rates does not “directly speak to the quality of education offered by these institutions.”


  • Federal graduation rates only include students who are in their first three years of pursuing an associate’s degree, while the NSC data allow researchers to track completion time for four years. Both sets of graduation rates for students seeking bachelor’s degrees are for a six-year timeframe.
  • Federal rates also exclude students who began their studies on a part-time basis, and students who transferred to another institution to complete their degrees are considered “non-completers.” However, federal rates do include students who began as full-time students and later became part-time.
  • NSC data allow researchers to include graduation rates for transfer students across institutions and students who attended full-time, part-time, or with mixed enrollment (alternating between part- and full-time).

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

  • Most HBCU students at public two- and four-year institutions alternated between part- and full-time status, while 56 percent of students at private four-year institutions enrolled exclusively full-time.
  • Many students who would be counted as “non-completers” in the federal rate transferred to and graduated at a different institution: 9 percent at public four-year institutions, 10 percent at private four-year institutions, and 4 percent at public two-year institutions.
  • According to NSC data, 32 percent of exclusively full-time students graduated at public two-year HBCUs, and 20 percent graduated overall. The federal rate was 14 percent.
  • Graduation rates at public and private four-year institutions rose—especially for full-time students—compared to the federal rate (see table 1).

Table 1

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Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs)

  • Most PBI students attended as mixed enrollment at all types of institutions.
  • At four-year PBIs, full-time students graduated at much higher rates, 52 percent at public institutions and 63 percent at private institutions, compared to federal rates of 17 percent at public institutions and 31 percent at private institutions (see table 2).
  • At public two-year PBIs, the report found an overall completion rate of 22 percent and a full-time student rate of 37 percent, compared to a federal rate of 17 percent.

Table 2

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Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs)

  • Like HBCUs, most HSI students at public institutions had mixed enrollment, while students at private four-year institutions were more likely to enroll full-time.
  • The total NSC graduation rate (50 percent) is slightly higher than the federal completion rate (43 percent) at public four-year HSIs, but the rate for full-time students increased to 74 percent.
  • At private four-year HSIs, 61 percent of students completed overall, rising to 78 percent for full-time students. The federal rate for these students was 49 percent.
  • The federal completion rate (26 percent) was higher than the NSC’s total completion rate for public two-year HSIs (21 percent). The NSC’s rate increased to 40 percent for full-time students (See table 3).

Table 3

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Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs)

  • Most students at public AANAPISIs had mixed enrollment, 50 percent at four-year and 73 percent at two-year institutions. However, 71 percent of students at private four-year AANAPISIs enrolled full-time.
  • Total graduation rates at four-year institutions were slightly higher than the federal rates, but rose significantly for full-time students (see table four).
  • At public two-year institutions, the overall rate (21 percent) was lower than the federal graduation rate (28 percent). However, the rate for full-time students rose to 43 percent.

Table 4

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Did You Know?

The report was unable to obtain graduation rate data for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) “due to their low participation in the National Student Clearinghouse.” The report advocates for more efforts by the national higher education community “to bring these institutions into the discussion given their paramount role in educating Native communities. The lack of data on TCUs raises important questions on a host of issues including the visibility of TCUs and the students they serve, and the appropriateness of enrollment and completion data for measuring institutional performance.”

Percentages in this article have been rounded. Images are included by permission of the American Council on Education.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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