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5 Public Colleges with the Best Graduation Rates

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UniversityGetting into college is only half the battle. Getting through is another challenge. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only about half of first-time full-time undergrad students at public schools graduate in six years or less. While students at private nonprofit schools fared slightly better—65 percent turned the tassel in six years—only 28 percent of those at for-profit colleges graduated in the same time frame.

These colleges ensure that students get the courses they need to graduate. Here are the public colleges with the highest four-year graduation rates according to data compiled by The Chronicle for Higher Education, with tips for all students on graduating on time. We provide average net prices to see the cost of graduating on time. The good news is none of these schools even come close to some of the most expensive colleges in America.

US Service Academies

Graduation rate: 88.1% – 68.7%

All five of the US service academies have spots amongst the top 20 graduation rates because they’re selective, provide one-on-one attention and deliver high-quality educations. They also come with free tuition. Students enrolled in the US Naval, Military, Air Force, Coast Guard or Merchant Marine academies receive free tuition, but are required to complete anywhere from four to ten years of military service after graduation.

Kalman A. Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke,” says that all college students can set themselves up for an on-time graduation by establishing academic success early.

“Freshman year, they can do with not getting in over their head,” he says, adding that taking too many classes or petitioning to get into difficult upper-level courses too soon can sometimes set students back.

University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia
Graduation rate: 84.5%
Average net price: $11,590

If you want selection, UVA offers 51 bachelor’s degrees in fields ranging from Environmental Thought and Practice to Speech Pathology. The problem with schools that offer a broad range of majors is it’s not always easy to decide which one fits best.

To avoid changing majors and delaying graduation, Chany recommends focusing on general distribution requirements until you’re sure which degree works. According to the University of California Berkeley’s career center, students who start college without a declared major are less likely to switch degree programs than students who enter with a major declared.

College of William and Mary

Williamsburg, Virginia
Graduation rate: 82.2%
Average net price: $12,660

Regardless of your school’s graduation rate, all students can lower their chances of sticking around too long by “planning your schedule carefully and thinking ahead, not just [to] the next semester, but a few semesters down the road,” says Chany.

Underclassmen may not be able to plan all four years, but they can work with an advisor to ensure that they’re getting required underclassmen courses. If a required course isn’t available one semester, knowing early on will give students time to rearrange schedules and investigate summer school or transfer credit options that can save them from paying for another semester.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Graduation rate: 74.9%
Average net price: $11,028

All schools on this list recruit high-performing students, but they also provides support programs to help students conquer tough courses. If you encounter an academic issue, Chany recommends addressing it early by “…showing interest, going to the office hours, making appointments to have a conversation with the professor or the instructor.”

If a professor can’t solve the problem, many schools offer on-campus writing centers, study groups and tutoring programs that can boost your grade.

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

Graduation rate: 72%
Average net price: $14,074

It’s not surprising that selective schools like UM Ann Arbor have high graduation rates, but if you attend a school with a lower graduation rate, don’t panic. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that if a school has a lower [graduation] rate than another that it’s a bad school,” says Chany.

Graduation rates usually don’t separate drop outs from students who transferred. Colleges that cater to students with lower likelihoods of graduating, including nontraditional, low-income and academically-challenged students, may also have lower graduation rates even if they provide a great education.

To get a bigger picture, Chany advises prospective students to research a school’s student retention and transfer rates in addition to the graduation rate.

Net price information was gathered through the National Center for Education Statistics.

Kalman A. Chany is the founder and president of Campus Consultants, Inc. and author of the book Paying for College Without Going Broke.

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2 Responses to “5 Public Colleges with the Best Graduation Rates”

  1. Emily says:

    The service academies also require that you pay them back tuition of $100,000 per year if you drop out in year 3 or 4 (years 1 and 2 you can drop out without penalty). That’s quite an incentive! (Son 2012 graduate of USNA)

    • Emily says:

      Oh, and they also pay a small salary that increases each year. These kids can graduate debt-free except for the devious incentive of a $35,000 low interest loan offered in the third year as a bonus for signing their commitment to complete school and their service obligation. I tried to talk my kid out of it but it was too tempting. Still, that’s the only debt he has now as an officer.


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