WASHINGTON state ranks fifth among all states in the percentage of college freshman who graduate four years later. But that’s not such good news, since the rates across the country are abysmal.

Just 41 percent of Washington college freshman graduate in four years. That is a pitifully poor retention rate given the expectation that every college student should successfully complete their studies. The median is 31 percent.

Every state could stand to do a lot better getting students not just into college, but through it.

These metrics are in the news as another crop of freshmen head off to college soon. But there is a danger in oversimplifying data compiled by the Bothell-based BERC Group.

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For one thing, the notion of students graduating in tight four-year cohorts is dated. College is hard and expensive. Students take breaks. They return to graduate in five or six years.

Also, the difference between graduation rates at two- and four-year institutions is important. College graduation rates often do not separate the two. Many students enroll in community college with no intention of earning a certificate or a degree. They are brushing up on a skill or satisfying an interest in a particular topic. Student transfers are so loosely tracked they are often miscounted as dropouts.

Just as the K-12 system learned to better track student mobility in order to more accurately reflect student dropout and graduation rates, higher-education institutions must do the same.

Graduation rates are one way to measure how well educational institutions are doing. Other ways include how prepared high-school graduates are for college. Employment opportunities after college is yet another way.