Help! Trying to find the most reliable graduation rate data

Hi folks,

For the serious data geeks among you, some serious weekend fun. I’ve been trying to fill in what ought to be a very simple chart, with some data that you’d imagine would be straightforward, re the % of students who enter and complete college from the highest and lowest income quartiles:

Lowest-income quartile Highest-income quartile
Enter college __% __%
Complete college __% __%

The problem is, there’s a lot of different data out there on college entrance and completion rates by income. Here are the different sources and numbers that I’ve seen:


Source 1: Martha J. BaileySusan M. Dynarski 

They offer a much-quoted report that offers these stats:

Lowest-income quartile Highest-income quartile
Enter college 29% 80%
Complete college 9% 54%

However, this data is pretty dated, since it comes from the 1997  National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Source 2: Tom Mortensen

Most folks these days quote from his newsletter-ish publication, and I’m tempted to as well. If you check it out, you’ll see it’s a little eccentric, mixing serious data geekery with acerbic editorial commentary (“Is it time for me to go fishing? Seems like most everyone else has already made this choice.”) But everyone from KIPP to the Education Trust seems to trust it, and it is the most comparable and most up-to-date that I can find. Here’s what it says:

Lowest-income quartile Highest-income quartile
Enter college 41% 84%*
Complete college 8% 82%

*KIPP uses this data source, but has a different data point for high-income entering college in the much-discussed college completion report.

For background, KIPP offers these notes re Mortenson:

Mortenson, Tom. “Bachelor’s Degree

Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income

Quartiles, 1970 to 2009.”

Underlying data sources:

Current Population Survey, U.S. data for 2009

compiled with assistance of Kurt Bauman,

Chief, Education and Social Stratification

Branch, U.S. Census Bureau. Notes: Bottom

quartile: $0 to $36,080; second quartile:

$36,081 to $65,310; third quartile: $65,311 to

$108,284; top quartile: more than $108,284.

“Enroll in college” includes two- and four-year

degree-granting institutions. “Graduate

college by age 24” includes only four-year

degree-granting institutions. 


Source 3: Ed Trust

Ed Trust is close to the same numbers, but not same… in a presentation on low-income student attainment, they draw from a combo of Mortensen and NCES:

Lowest-income quartile Highest-income quartile
Enter college 55% 84%
Complete college 8% 82%


Obviously, not all of these sources can be right, and some are fairly far apart. Ideas on what’s most reliable or how best to fill out my humble chart? I’d welcome comments here or an email.


UPDATE: Check out this cool infographic on college completion sent to me by the talented Alexandra Campbell

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