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UW–Madison graduation, retention rates reach new highs

October 15, 2020 By Doug Erickson

Nearly 90 percent of UW–Madison undergraduates are completing their degrees within six years, setting a record for the institution and substantially exceeding other major public research universities.

According to the latest data from the university’s Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research, UW–Madison’s six-year graduation rate is now 88.5 percent, up from 87.6 percent the prior year. The latest figure is based on freshmen who entered the university in 2014.

An institution’s six-year graduation rate is the most common national metric used in higher education. UW–Madison’s rate exceeds last year’s peer average of 81.8 percent by nearly seven points.

The four-year graduation rate also improved at UW–Madison. For students who entered as new freshmen in 2016, the rate rose to 71.2 percent, the first time the figure has topped 70 percent. The rate is a 10-point increase from five years ago (61 percent) and is substantially higher than last year’s average for other peer institutions (62.1 percent).

“These are key measures of student success and help increase the affordability of a college education for our Wisconsin families,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

The latest data reflected good news in many other areas, including important metrics related to students of color:

  • The retention rate for underrepresented domestic students of color from the first year to the second year rose to 95.9 percent. This is the highest it has ever been and above the retention rate for UW–Madison students as a whole (95.2 percent).
  • The four-year graduation rate for underrepresented domestic students of color is 56.6 percent, a new high for this group.
  • The six-year graduation rate for underrepresented domestic students of color is 81.5 percent, similar to recent years.

“This university and its faculty and staff are working diligently every day to improve the experiences of students of color on this campus,” Blank says. “While this work is far from over, I’m encouraged by these latest figures and committed to making sure these positive trends continue.”

The latest results for federal Pell grant recipients (financial aid awarded to students from low-income families) also were strong:

  • The retention rate for recipients of Pell grants is 95.9 percent, a new high for this group.
  • The four-year graduation rate for Pell grant recipients is 59 percent, also a new high for this group.
  • The six-year graduation rate for recipients of Pell grants, at 83 percent, is similar to recent years and just over seven points higher than the peer average (75.9 percent).

The university conferred a record 7,459 bachelor’s degrees in 2019-20, up more than 300 from the prior year. The number of total degrees conferred, including master’s and doctoral degrees, rose to 11,113, the highest ever and the first time over 11,000.

The average time-to-degree for 2019-20 bachelor’s degree recipients was 3.92 elapsed calendar years (29 days short of four calendar years). This is the second consecutive year the figure has dropped below four calendar years. Time-to-degree is calculated based on students who graduate in a given year, regardless of when they started. Graduation rates are based on a specific entrance cohort, such as the 2016 freshman class. These are two different ways of measuring progress, one (graduation rates) based on students who start at the same time, the other (time-to-degree) based on students who finish at the same time.

University officials have pointed to numerous factors that likely are contributing to the positive metrics, including motivated, hard-working students, faculty and staff; enhanced academic and career advising; the expansion of summer term; and new online tools that help undergraduates easily find and enroll in the courses they need.