Where no one fails: Top 10 US universities with the best graduation rates

lowest dropout rate
Graduating students celebrate the struggles and challenges faced. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

Universities with the lowest dropout rates aren’t just places where many students do well enough to graduate. They are so much more than that.

Having the “lowest dropout rates” means a university has what it takes to help students find jobs easier after graduation, earn more and add an important achievement into their lives.

One 2022 study found that those with college degrees make US$22,000 more per year than those with high school graduates.

A full-time worker around the ages of 22 to 27 with a high school diploma makes a median annual wage of US$30,000. Someone else in the same job, but has a bachelor’s degree, makes US$52,000.

Despite this incentive, too many fail to graduate. Forty percent of students in the US drop out every year, according to Research.com. That’s nearly one in two students.

There are many reasons for this, ranging from the obvious to the downright hidden.

Whichever it is, students going to university should beware of all of them when choosing a uni right until the day they finally graduate.

The top reasons why students drop out

University can overwhelm even the best of us — especially if it isn’t a good fit for us.

An all-As student in high school can still fail university if they hate the subject they’re chosen.

Someone who loves working with their hands and dislikes writing will find it hard to pass if their degree requires a lot of essays.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of plagiarism, you could have just copied your textbook innocently, which could get you failed, and then suspended.

Repeat that a few times and you could even get expelled and lose your study visa.

Then there are the many personal problems that can come up, from a death or terminal illness of a family member.

If they’re the ones helping you pay tuition, you could lose the funds required to continue attending uni.

Sometimes losing even a small amount of funds could lead to you not being able to afford books, rent and many other things you need to do well at university, or even just to pass.

These are just a few issues that can cause even the most talented and hard-working students to drop out.

There are many, many more — from being bullied to being dumped and suffering from mental health challenges.

The universities with the lowest dropout rates stand out because they take active steps on prevent all of this.

Many would typically have their courses, teachers and staff designed and trained to help students succeed.

These can include having loads of help to deal with coursework, money, people, and more available. Every little advice and gesture goes a long way — as their lowest dropout rates show.

US universities with the lowest dropout rates

Harvard University

Have you heard the statement, “The most difficult thing about Harvard is getting in”?

That is true. But did you know that almost all Harvard University also stay in and don’t drop out? Ninety-nine percent of its first-year students return for the second year.

Many factors play a role in this exclusive university’s low dropout rates, other than it is an Ivy League, obviously.

Its admission process is so rigorously conducted that students who get it are more than equipped to handle the next four years of their lives at what’s often ranked the #1 uni in the US.

Besides being academically qualified, they show a passion for succeeding that is unique and can thrive in their surroundings and with peers.

The university is no stranger to helping keep the graduation rates up. It offers many resources that make students want to stay, no matter how tough the programmes might seem.

One-on-one coaching, student-run clubs, exposure to the alumni network, and excellent support and guidance are only a small facet of what students at Harvard receive.

lowest dropout rate

Princeton University is known for having one of the lowest dropout rates. Source: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images/ AFP

Princeton University

A world-class education. Strong career placement rates. Competitive financial aid packages. A thriving, fun community of people from all over the world.

This is what Princeton University offers. Is it any wonder why they have one of the lowest dropout rates in the country?

The fourth oldest education institution in the US had 96% of its freshmen return for the second year.

That’s not all. Princeton achieved the best four-year graduation rate among all the Ivy League schools in 2021.

So why do they have such low dropout rates? Reasons vary, of course. Like every Ivy League school, students stay not only because of its status but so much more.

First up is living on campus. Accommodation is not an issue at all, Princeton guarantees on-campus housing for all four years, and 98% of them do end up living there.

This also results in students growing together as one large community of youngsters that live, work, study and play together.

The convenience store’s mac-and-cheese defined Lauren Frost’s decision to enrol at Princeton but also played a role in why she stayed.

“Those are the things that have defined my Princeton experience and convinced me that I made the right decision.”

For Aliisa Lee, yummy ice cream, a strong English and visual arts programme, and a vibrant Christian ministry drew her in and kept her there.

lowest dropout rates

Duke has plenty of sporting events that students can attend. Source: Don Emmert/AFP

Duke University

Chances are you’ve heard of Duke University and all the famous people who went there, including Melinda Gates, Richard Nixon, and Tim Cook.

What did they all have in common? While they took on different programmes, they ran the race and graduated at the end of their programmes.

Duke is one of the few universities that have had an average retention rate of 97.33% for the last 10 years.

Duke isn’t known for nothing. Despite it not being an Ivy League school, it has been unrivalled in its academic excellence and championship-level athletics.

Daya Brown from Atlanta is one lucky student who chose Duke and intends to stay until she graduates.

Brown was accepted into 54 universities and colleges as a high school senior and earned US$1.3 million in scholarships.

And she picked Duke. “It felt like home. I was welcomed by amazing students who were minority students,” she says to WRAL.

Brown also plans to stay because she got a full-year ride scholarship to Duke and will be able to reapply every year after that.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are driven and ambitious.

This also tells us why acceptance rates are incredibly competitive; many attempt to join, but only a handful get in.

This could explain why MIT has one of the lowest dropout rates in the country — 99% of first-year students in 2021 returned for their second year.

Students who join MIT are usually those who already have an idea of what they want to do later in life, be it in technology, mathematics, or engineering.

While they are studying and living in the US, they are also simultaneously impacting people worldwide by expanding access to schools in Africa, supporting innovation in the Philippines, and managing traffic in Brazil.

Such opportunities, paired with a global array of networks, enable students to see the benefit of finishing up a degree at MIT.

Studying at MIT, you’re surrounded by faculty and peers who not only show you that challenges can be overcome but support you to believe in what you can achieve.

lowest dropout rate

Barack Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Source: Stan Honda/AFP

University of Chicago

Here’s a fun fact. Former president Barack Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. It has 94 Nobel Prize winners in its ranks.

It’s no surprise that it has 99% of students staying on for the second year, making it an institution with one of the lowest dropout rates in the US.

At the University of Chicago, everyone has a different experience. This contributes to the individual experience each student has.

These internships gave me unparalleled insight into the various perspectives and lived situations of marginalized people around the world,” says Political Science student Salma Elkhaoudi.

For Emily Chen, it was the opportunity to be a recipient of the Arley D. Cathey Fellowship that will keep her going while she pursues ChemistryL

“To have an opportunity to study abroad and explore my intellectual interests is an incredible privilege, and one that I intend on cherishing.”

University of Notre Dame

It is said that the University of Notre Dame seeks to find the creative intellectual, the bold and ethical and the relentless seekers of social justice.

Are these the kind of students you’d imagine dropping out halfway? We’d say hardly.

The university has a proven track of low dropout rates, sitting at 98%. And here’s why.

Students enrolled here develop strong foundations based on Catholic principles. The process and learning are grounded in tradition, but students are empowered to critically think on their own.

Why else do students stay? An effort for diversity and assistance to help the lower income groups could very well contribute to this.

It is an important goal from the university’s end, says Don Bishop, the University’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrolment.

“We want to go out to all these diverse communities and find those who really believe in Notre Dame and the benefits of Notre Dame.”

With such caring and thoughtful processes that go into the selection of students, many consider themselves fortunate to be picked and won’t lose the opportunity to complete their programme.

lowest dropout rates

Rice University has served a flourishing and diverse population for decades. Source: Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP

Rice University

Rice University sits in the middle of Houston, Texas, boasting a 300-acre campus surrounded by trees that provide plenty of shade in the hot Texan summers.

But that’s not why it has one of the lowest dropout rates in the country. Instead, the university’s retention rate was 97% in 2022.

Students not only thrive here but foster the bonds they created long after they graduate and leave, impacting their careers and lifelong dreams.

Toya Cirica Bell’s fervent pursuit to succeed while studying humanities led her to a second internship before she joined law school.

Time and time again, the Rice community showed up for each other, she says.

“The wonderful experience of serving on the Association of Rice Alumni (ARA) board came from Rice connections,” she says.

Bell is thankful for the ARA’s mission to ensure Rice’s experience doesn’t stop upon graduation but continues long after.

Stories like Bell’s are why students do not consider dropping out halfway at Rice University; the support from the tight-knit community is sure to cheer you on despite hardships.

lowest dropout rate

Despite Vanderbilt University not being an Ivy League, it still has one of the lowest dropout rates in US. Source: Danielle Del Valle/Getty Images/ AFP

Vanderbilt University

Happiness may be a difficult element to track but according to reports, Vanderbilt University seems to have the “happiest students”.

This contributes to its high retention rate of 97% of freshmen students that return for another year.

What makes them so happy?

For one, the housing and dining facilities. All first years live on the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons residential campus, and you will never be bored.

There are game nights, musical evenings, community service projects and everything in between to spice up your experience.

Fancy a dietician that can offer the best and most nutritious food choices? You got it.

Vanderbilt students can access residential dining halls, cafes, and marts, all within walking distance, with options for kosher, vegan and Halal food.

Need more reasons? Vanderbilt’s low student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1, strong academic focus and caring administration don’t give students any reason to drop out or leave halfway.

Johns Hopkins University

One great aspect of going to an institution like Johns Hopkins University is the abundance of opportunities it opens even while students are still underway in their programmes.

Many choose to participate in research and internships even as an undergraduate, which opens up a world of possibilities and experiences that is unrivalled.

Located in Baltimore, this university has consistently placed highly in rankings every year while graduates go on to succeed.

It is a highly selective school; it has an acceptance rate of 8%, so it’s no wonder students tend to complete their programmes after trying so hard to get in.

The university saw 97% of students staying on for their second year, making it an institution with one of the lowest dropout rates in the US.

lowest dropout rate

UC Berkeley has one of the lowest dropout rates in the country because of its vast offering of programmes and qualified faculty. Source: Kimberly White /Getty Images/AFP

University of California, Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley, better known as UC Berkeley, is known for its ground-breaking research and technological innovations that its students dabble in.

Some will say it is the best public university in the world. This is also why once a student enrols, they hesitate to leave.

UC Berkeley’s first-year retention rate was recorded at 97%, proving just how much students enjoyed exploring everything the university had to offer.

Those studying here are focused on their goals and seek to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before them.

Think actor Chris Pine, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and CEO of Intel Paul Otellini.