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Less Competitive Colleges

Updated 5/28/2024

Like their classmates who are applying to top colleges, students applying to less competitive colleges face good news and bad news.

The Good News

The good news for such students is that the application process at many such schools is simpler and more predictable than at highly selective colleges. The entire application may consist of no more than the student’s transcript, biographical data, possibly a brief summary of extracurricular activities, one essay, and likely no standardized testing.  Better still, a student’s odds of being accepted are much more predictable at a school that accepts 70% of applicants than one that accepts only 7%.  In a nutshell, applicants who meet the academic parameters being sought by the college stand an excellent chance of being admitted. Indeed, it's not hard to find four-year colleges with an open admission policy, which means they accept all students who've graduated high school. To give a sense of how many colleges have such a policy, a recent search for four-year colleges with open admission on the College Board College Search engine turned up 670 colleges. 

On the whole, therefore, the application process is a great deal less stressful for applicants to less selective institutions. So what’s the bad news?

The Bad News

The bad news has nothing to do with getting in to college – it’s about getting out with a degree. Most families assume that their son or daughter will graduate college in four years, but graduation data don't support that assumption. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 49% of full-time freshmen who started at any 4-year college in the United States in 2016 graduated from that same college within four years. These statistics don't include students who may have transferred to another college and graduated, but an organization that does track students through all schools attended found that only 63.8% of students entering a two or four-year college in 2017 had graduated from any college six years later (National Student Clearinghouse data).

Bottom line: if you are the parent of a mediocre student, you'd be wise to check the graduation rates at all colleges that your teen is considering. Some colleges do a much better job of graduating students in a timely fashion than their peers, and those are the ones I'd recommend you invest your tuition dollars in. Before you go looking, however, here's a word of caution. It's becoming more common for colleges to list their six-year graduation rates than four-year rates, so if you just see the term "graduation rate" you can't be sure what it refers to.  Here are a couple of places where you can find the four-year rate.

One good resource is College Navigator, a governmental (NCES) website. For any college you search, you can find a wealth of information. Click the Retention and Graduation tab in a college's profile to see data on the percentages of students who return sophomore year, and who graduate from that school in 4, 6, and 8 (!) years. Another quick resource is U.S. News & World Report's list of Highest 4-Year Graduation Rates. This data is based on students who started college in 2016. 

For more information on ways to increase the odds that your child will get through college in four years, read Academic Strategies to Cut Costs in the Pay for College section of this guide.

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