The Ivy Coach Daily

May 14, 2024

4-Year and 6-Year Ivy League Graduation Rates

Baker Library is featured on a cloudy day at Dartmouth College.

Ivy League schools pride themselves on their many markers of institutional success, and a high graduation rate is one of the most important of these markers. But just how successful are these schools at getting their students in and out in a timely fashion? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduates at four-year private nonprofit institutions was 68% in 2020. The data presented below indicates that every Ivy League exceeded that metric by a landslide, with the Ivy League-wide average six-year graduation rate sitting at 96.2% for the Class of 2020.

But the data still shows some interesting variation between the schools, providing a look at how the Covid-19 pandemic affected each school in a unique way. The below data were culled from each school’s Common Data Set, which reports the four and six-year graduation rates for cohorts that first enrolled six or more years ago. While the graduation rate for more recent classes is still forthcoming, this data provides the most up-to-date insight into how successful these schools are at doing what they claim to do so well.

A Comprehensive Breakdown of Ivy League Graduation Rates, 2019-2021

4-Year Graduation Rate (%)6-Year Graduation Rate (%)
Class of 2019Class of 2020Class of 2021Class of 2019Class of 2020Class of 2021
Brown University86.5%85.4%80.2%95.8%95%95.7%
Columbia University87.1%89%Not Yet Published95%95%Not Yet Published
Cornell University88.2%89.3%91.6%94.8%95.3%100%
Dartmouth College85.8%84.5%84.2%94%95%96%
Harvard University86.3%86.8%65.9%96.7%97.8%98%
Princeton University89.5%88.1%Not Yet Published97.6%97.5%Not Yet Published
University of Pennsylvania89.2%87.7%Not Yet Published96.2%96.1%Not Yet Published
Yale University87.7%88.1%66.1%96.9%97.8%96.3%

For the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2020, the average four-year graduation rate across the Ivy League was 87.4%. This figure jumps to 96% over six years. The pandemic hit right in the middle of the spring semester of 2020, after the drop-out deadline had passed at each school. The Class of 2020 was essentially grandfathered into those last few weeks of online learning, and so major shifts in the graduation rate were not seen until the following year, even though the pandemic was already beginning to affect students.

At some schools, the Class of 2021 jumped ship and took gap years, presumably to avoid online learning, while students at other schools persisted in their coursework. Cornell University is the only school that did not record a dip in their four-year graduation rate in 2021. In fact, Cornell also recorded the highest possible six-year graduation rate for that same cohort (graduating a remarkable 100% of the original Class of 2021!). Dartmouth College’s four-year graduation rate dipped by 0.3% in 2021 compared to the previous year, while Brown University, Yale University, and Harvard University recorded dramatic dips in the four-year graduation rate during that same period. 

However, as the six-year graduation rate across schools indicates, those who deferred their education during the pandemic did, ultimately, return to their respective alma maters to finish their degrees. The 2021 dip in the four-year graduation rate at some schools was not paralleled by a dip in the six-year rate, which remained roughly the same or even increased at most schools.

Why Did Harvard and Yale Record Dramatic Dips in their Four-Year Graduation Rates?

Why did only two-thirds of the original Class of 2021 end up graduating at Harvard and Yale? Among a certain type of student, who makes up a large proportion of the Harvard and Yale student bodies, taking a gap year was quite en vogue during the pandemic. While research of this nature has not yet been conducted, anecdotal reports suggest that the most privileged students at Harvard and Yale went the gap year route. 

Legacies and wealthy students often come from backgrounds where college is thought of as a time for intellectual exploration and socializing — aspects of the college lifestyle that were stymied by pandemic-related online learning. These students typically experience less external pressure to choose a practical major and quickly enter into a lucrative job market because their families have the means to support them no matter where life takes them. Harvard, Yale, and Brown (which recorded a 5.2% drop in four-year graduates in 2021) attract these sorts of students who come from considerable means and are not quite ready to professionalize yet, hence the large proportion who chose to take a gap year during the pandemic. 

Until more concrete data emerges about the socioeconomic makeup of pandemic gap-yearers in the Ivy League, this theory of ours at Ivy Coach is just that — a well-informed theory. But our crystal ball rarely ever fails us!

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