Good News: Student Outcomes at UW-Madison Continue to Improve

It’s been a very busy last couple of weeks but I’d like to pause for a second to go back and highlight a piece of extremely positive news that not everybody noticed.

I often talk about students and the experience and success they experience here and it’s more than just public relations. We are seeing outcomes that are historic for UW-Madison.

According to the Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research, this fall’s freshman-sophomore retention rate is 95.8 percent, up from 95.3 percent the previous year. It is the third year in a row the university eclipsed a retention rate of more than 95 percent, and the best rate we’ve ever had.  This is well above most of our public peers and comparable to the rates many very good smaller liberal arts colleges achieve.

In more good news, we’ve set a record for the four-year graduation rate at 60.3 percent, an improvement in the previous high of 57.1 percent set last year.  The six-year graduation rate of 85.1 percent is up from 84.8 percent — the first time since we began making these measurements in the 1980s that we’ve been over 85 percent for the six-year cohort.  This is also above many of our peer schools.

Those rates may seem low to you, but they are the percentage of students who start at UW-Madison and graduate from UW-Madison. If we look at alternative data, that provides information on whether those who start at UW-Madison graduate with a four-year degree from any school (data that is only available with a lag), we can add about 3 points to the 4-year graduation rate and about 6 points to the 6 year graduation rate. Our graduated-anywhere rate is about 90 percent.

Average time to degree, an excellent indicator of how well we are meeting our students needs by getting them access the classes they need to graduate, is now 4.13 years. This is the lowest figure since we started measuring in the early 1980s. More than half of the students who graduate finish in four academic years (3.7 calendar years.)   It is worth noting that lowering time to degree reduces costs for students and their families.

Even more impressive, these improvements have occurred even as our class sizes have grown.  Compare to ten years ago, we have 600 more freshmen in 2015, and 1100 more total undergraduates. That illustrates a point that’s clear when you look across Big 10 schools: schools with many similarities in size and student body still have quite different outcome statistics. In short, if you are doing a good job providing class access, advising, financial aid, and other tools that assist students, big schools like UW-Madison can show very good outcomes.

These are all encouraging trends for students and families who are concerned with the cost of earning a degree, and the value they get for their tuition dollars. These metrics are also hot button issues for policymakers who want to see that schools are delivering for students who make an investment in higher education.

I know that many on campus have worked extremely hard to improve time to degree and retention rates, whether it’s in teaching, student life, advising, career services, student health, policing or planning.

I am thankful for your efforts and I hope you take as much pride in this good news as I have. For a deeper dive on our graduation and retention rates, go to