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Less Competitive Colleges

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 and test scores along with a short form on which the applicant supplies biographical data, a brief summary of extracurricular activities, and one essay.  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.

To make the whole process even nicer, such schools often provide a variety of ways for students to receive their admission decision before April. These include early application programs, rolling admissions – in which students get a decision a few weeks after they submit their application, and even immediate notification – whereby a student completes an application online, brings an official transcript with test scores to the school, and gets a decision on the spot.

While some less competitive colleges do consider extracurricular activities, the essay, and recommendations, these factors are more likely to be used to tip the scales in favor of a student who has borderline academic credentials than to disadvantage a strong student. Unlike their ultracompetitive counterparts, a less selective college is unlikely to reject a student who is in the top 25% of the applicant pool academically because she wrote a lackluster essay, did not make a major impact on her school, or came across as somewhat pedestrian on her counselor recommendation.

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. As noted in the introductory Parent Role article, a majority of students beginning at a four year college will not graduate in four years. Let’s review the data presented there on this topic, because it has significant implications for the parents of students who are bound for less selective colleges.

The reality is that most students take longer than four years to graduate from college, and many never finish at all. According to National Student Clearinghouse research, only 68% of students who started a four year college in 2012 had earned a degree six years later. Significantly, this study tracked students through all colleges they attended and only included students whose enrollment was at least half-time, so the surprisingly low graduation rate cannot be blamed on losing track of students who transferred or counting as non-completers those who only signed up for a course or two. 

This data might suggest that at most colleges, around two-thirds of students graduate within six years, but the actual situation is quite different. In reality, graduation rates differ markedly across schools, with more selective colleges having much higher rates than less selective ones.  Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that 60% of students who began at a four year college in 2010 graduated from that same school within six years. However, the graduation rate for those beginning at an open admission college (one that accepts any high school graduate) was a mere 32%, a marked contrast from the 88% graduation rate for students attending a highly selective institution (one that accepts less than 25% of applicants). 

These are sobering statistics. After six years, only 60 to 70% of students starting at a four year college had graduated? How many graduate after four years - the time frame most parents have in mind - and the number of years they've budgeted for?

When you look at four year graduation rates, many low-selectivity colleges have rates in the twenties and thirties – and some are as low as the teens. By contrast, highly selective colleges have four year graduation rates as high as the mid-eighties. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Duh, Ellen. I don’t need someone with a Ph.D. in education to tell me that if my daughter could get into MIT, she’d be more likely to graduate on time than if she goes to Goldbrick U.” But hold on a minute. The reason I’ve called these graduation rates to your attention is that among colleges with fairly similar student bodies, some do a lot better job than others at getting students through in a timely manner.  So I recommend checking out the four and six year graduation rates for the colleges your son is considering on www.collegeresults.org.

This website not only lists four and six year graduation rates for college – it will also create a comparison group of other institutions with similar student bodies, so you can see how a college performs relative to its peers. For more information on ways to increase the odds you’re your child will get through college in four years, read Academic Strategies to Cut Costs in the Pay for College section of this guide.

Beyond looking for a college with a good record of timely graduation, the other major step you can take while your daughter is still in high school is to make every effort to bolster her academic foundation. Many things can impact the likelihood that a student will graduate on time – or at all, but one factor that has been found to be highly significant is the strength of a student’s academic preparation in high school. Clifford Adelman, a researcher who followed a national cohort of students from their 10th grade year in 1980 until 1993, concluded that the intensity and quality of the high school curriculum was one of the most powerful predictors of degree attainment.

This conclusion is also supported by a USDOE study that followed a national sample of students who began a four year institution in 1995-96 with the intention of earning a bachelor’s degree. Only 37% graduated from their first college within four years, and only 63% did so within six. However, strong academic preparation in high school (defined by having gotten mostly As, taken at least two AP tests or scored between 1030-1600 on the SAT Critical Reading and Math) improved timely graduation rates substantially. Among students with those qualifications, 55-61% graduated within four years and fully 80 percent graduated within six years (Berkner, He, & Cataldi, 2003).

In conclusion, strong academic preparation in high school can significantly increase the odds that a student will graduate in a timely manner. So unless your teen is already a senior, you still have an opportunity to make a difference. 

 Next article:  Courses


1. Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the Toolbox. Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, USDOE. Available online: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED431363.pdf.
2. Berkner, L., He, S., & Cataldi, E.F. (2003). Descriptive Summary of 1995-96 Beginning Postsecondary Students: Six Years Later. Education Statistics Quarterly, Vol. 5, Issue 1.


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