Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

More students graduating in four years from Michigan public universities

Wayne State University campus
Wayne State University’s four-year completion rate for students climbed from 23.4% to 50.1% over the past decade. (Shutterstock photo by Susan Montgomery)
  • A greater share of Michigan public university students are completing degrees or certificates in four years, according to new data
  • That’s good news for students who take on less debt if they finish on time and universities struggling to attract new students
  • Michigan officials are debating ways to make the cost of college more affordable for more people

More Michigan public university students are earning a degree within four years, according to new data that is good news for graduates and schools struggling to promote themselves amid enrollment declines. 

For students who started in the fall 2019, 58.3% completed a bachelor’s degree – or in a small number of cases, an associate degree or certificate – within four years. 

That’s up slightly from the previous year’s 57.7% and up significantly from a decade ago, when only 43.1% of students completed work in four years. 

In raw numbers, 30,804 students who earned a degree or certificate from one of Michigan’s 15 public universities in 2023 did so within four years, up from 23,714 in 2013. 

For students, there are clear financial benefits to completing college in four years, said Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Brad Hershbein headshot
Brad Hershbein is the senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. (Courtesy photo)

“If people finish faster, that's less time that they're borrowing money in many cases and taking on more debt,” he said. “It's time that they get into the workforce faster and can start building their career.” 


Improving four-year success rates are also a welcome development for public universities that have seen enrollment numbers decline amid falling birth rates and increased competition. Schools are facing public scrutiny over tuition rates as families decide whether a college education is worth the cost. 

The state numbers are positive, but Hershbein said two big questions remain: What is happening with people who chose not to enroll in college altogether? And what are the job outcomes for those who complete a degree in Michigan?


The push for college enrollment

While more students are finishing on time, Michigan’s public universities have had fewer students on campus. The state said there were 55,000 students in the incoming class in 2009 and 52,800 in 2019, a 4% drop.

Some schools have bucked the enrollment trend, however. Michigan State (+26.3%),  U-M (+17.8%) and Wayne State (+12.1%) have each seen increases, while others saw steep declines, including Central Michigan (-42%), Eastern Michigan (-28%) and U-M Flint (-28.4%).

Hershbein said lower enrollment numbers at some schools could be contributing to higher completion rates because “when there are fewer people, that means that each individual student can get a little bit more attention” from faculty and student support staff. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature have focused on college enrollment in recent budgets. Whitmer’s goal is to have 60% of working age adults with a skills certificate or college degree by 2030, up from what the administration says is currently 51%

She’s worked with lawmakers to create a state scholarship program for recent high school graduates and grants for adults without degrees to go to community college tuition-free. Now, leaders are debating if the state should provide tuition-free community college for all recent graduates


At the same time, leaders are discussing what it will take to grow Michigan’s population and retain the people who already live in the state. 

Michigan is recruiting out-of-state college students but remains a "net-exporter of college-educated talent, especially Black college graduates," according to a population growth council appointed by Whitmer. 

About 19% of Black adults in Michigan hold a bachelor's degree, a figure that stands at 25% nationally, the council said last year in a report.

“The whole idea of trying to get more people educated is that we think it's going to improve jobs and improve people's earnings,” Hershbein said. 

Generally, college graduates will have greater job stability, be healthier and happier, and ultimately contribute more tax revenue to the state, Hershbein said. “But it can't just be ‘if you build it, it will come,’ you need to trust but verify.”

‘Intentional’ student advising 

Wayne State University, Oakland University and University of Michigan-Dearborn are among the schools with the highest growth in four-year success rates, according to the new state data. 

At Wayne State, the rate of students finishing a degree or certificate within four years climbed from 23.4% to 50.1% in the last decade, and enrollment has grown too. 

Graduation rates had been so low that the university had to look at “literally everything” it did and “reorient it toward supporting our students,” President Kimberly Andrews Espy told Bridge Michigan and BridgeDetroit in a joint interview.

Wayne State University President Kimberly Andrews Espy headshot
Wayne State University President Kimberly Andrews Espy. (Courtesy photo)

The university has focused on messaging to convince students they belong in college, implemented “intentional” student advising processes so that students are on track to graduate on time and monitor student grades to ensure students get academic help if needed, Espy said. 

“We have a whole group that meets pretty zealously and looks, like, student by student. So you couple technology with a high-touch personal approach and that's how you make a difference.” 

At the University of Michigan–Dearborn, 51.7% of students completed a degree or certificate within four years in 2023. A decade ago, that rate was 34.9%. 

U-M-Dearborn has moved toward a model where students can get their questions answered in one in-person or virtual place, said Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Melissa Stone.

Melissa Stone posing for a picture outside
Melissa Stone is the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at University of Michigan-Dearborn. (Courtesy photo)

The university also has a centralized system to track student requests about financial aid, advising or other questions and the university tracks how long it takes to respond to questions. U-M-Dearborn also launched a peer-to-peer mentorship program during the pandemic. 

Oakland University had a 50.8% four-year success rate for 2023 graduates, up from 29.2% a decade ago. Among other things, the school has created a first-year advising center that aims to provide “intentional support” for incoming students and transfer students who have not decided what to study. 

On the financial side, Oakland launched the tuition-free guarantee program for students with financial need and switched to a block tuition model meaning students are charged a flat rate if they take 12 or more credits per semester. 

Coming prepared, going full-time

Oakland also has a higher proportion of full-time students, as opposed to part-time students, than it did a decade ago, which has contributed to higher graduation rates, said Dawn Aubry, Oakland’s Vice President of Enrollment Management.

Dawn Aubry headshot
Dawn Aubry is the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Oakland University. (Courtesy photo)

“I believe that students, if they know that they're going to have support for their tuition, they will focus more on their academics and then they will take credits so that way they will stay on task to finish,” Aubry said. 

Leaders also referenced the influence of high school preparation in college student success rates. 

Espy, the Wayne State president, said high school graduates sometimes need better math or English skills to be successful in college. 

Aubry attributed some of Oakland University’s success rate improvement to the fact that the average high school grade point average of incoming first-year students has also increased.


And Stone, the U-M-Dearborn vice provost, said success rates are in part dependent on what experience students have before they even get to college. 

She said incoming students are arriving with more college credit through the growth of early middle college programs, Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment courses. 

These high school efforts, she said, “I think then means you're going to be more likely to complete, but also complete quicker.”

How impactful was this article for you?

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now