Completion Rates by Family Income and Parental Education Level

Students from higher-income families and students whose parents have four-year college degrees are more likely than others to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years. Differences in the characteristics and qualifications of the students account for about half of the difference in graduation rates.

Figure 2.5a: Percentage of 1999 Entrants at Flagship Universities Graduating Within Six Years, by Parental Education Level and Family Income, Adjusted for Student Characteristics
Figure 2.5a: Completion Rates by Family Income and Parental Education Level

The total height of each bar shows the percentage of students from each group that completed a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering the institution. The dark segments of the bars show the adjusted graduation rate for each group. The adjusted rate for high-income students is what their rate would have been if all of their characteristics (high school GPA, test scores, state residency status, gender, race/ethnicity, and parental education) had been the same as the characteristics of low-income students. The light segments show the gap accounted for by differences in these student characteristics, including income differences for parental education groups and differences in parental education for income groups.

Notes & Sources 

Note: Data are based on a sample of 21 flagship universities across the country. Graduation rates are from the university the student entered in 1999. Similar calculations allowing for transfer to other institutions yielded similar results.

Source: Bowen et al., 2009.

  • Among 1999 entrants at public flagship universities whose parents had a bachelor’s degree, 79% graduated within six years; among those whose parents had only a high school diploma, 69% graduated within six years.
  • After considering differences in high school GPA, SAT®, or ACT scores, state residency status, race or ethnicity, gender, university attended, and family income, the gap between students whose parents had a bachelor’s degree and students whose parents had no college declined from 10% to 6%.
  • Among students from the highest-income families, 83% graduated within six years; among those from the lowest-income families, 70% graduated within six years.
  • After adjusting for student characteristics and parental education level, the gap in graduation rates between students from the highest-income families and students from the lowest-income families declined from 13% to 6%.