It may seem that the area is flooded with college graduates these days as commencement after commencement is celebrated, but it's nothing like it could be, according to a new national report.

Just 53 percent of American college students graduated with a bachelor's degree in six years from the schools they entered as freshmen, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank that called the nation's universities to task yesterday for the rate.

The report follows a challenge issued to the nation's colleges in February by President Obama to improve graduation rates and a $2.5 billion federal allocation in his proposed budget to help with the effort.

Locally, Gwynedd-Mercy, Penn State, La Salle, Princeton, Penn, and Swarthmore fared very well, finishing among the top 10 schools nationally in their categories.

No local schools finished in the bottom 10, but five fell below the national average: Cheyney, Lincoln, Widener, Philadelphia University, and Delaware Valley.

Pennsylvania's four-year higher-education institutions, collectively, performed well, posting the third-highest graduation rate in the country: 64.4 percent, according to the report. New Jersey was tied with New Hampshire for 12th with 57.3 percent.

Graduation rates were based on U.S. Department of Education data for nearly 1.2 million freshmen who entered college in 2001, and the six categories ranging from non-competitive to most competitive were as defined by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, based on student demographics and admission standards. The study looked at 1,385 four-year colleges.

Authors of the report, "Diplomas and Dropouts," say that the data do not account for students who transfer, and that nationally, transfers likely would raise the overall graduation rate eight percentage points, to about 60 percent.

The report's authors also offer no analysis for wide-ranging rates among colleges with similar student bodies, but say they hope their study - a first of its kind for the group - will start a conversation about what it will take to raise overall performance.

"We simply want everybody making decisions in this process to have much better information," said Mark Schneider, a study author.

National and local education officials agreed yesterday that college graduation rates need attention, but cautioned that critics should consider that some schools are serving first-generation American and low-income students who often enter college in need of more support.

Some students also take longer than six years to finish because of financial problems or the need to work and attend part time.

Size of endowments, state funding, and other financial variations among institutions also are factors, they said.

"There's no question that we have emphasized access over the course of the past few decades with great success, but that we haven't focused as much on outcomes," said Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

"Therefore, we do have a process in which people congratulate themselves just because they manage to pull the students into higher education and don't pay sufficient attention on getting them out with a credential."

Schools that performed less well offered myriad reasons, including that their missions center on serving students who graduate from lower-performing school systems in urban areas and need more remediation.

"We traditionally take students who come from underestablished educational systems in Philadelphia and the Chester area," said Cheyney spokeswoman Antoinette Colon.

Cheyney, a historically black State System school, was among the five worst in the North region in its less-competitive category.

It graduated 29 percent of its students in six years, the worst rate in the area.

Colon acknowledged the school was trying to improve.

It is about to overhaul its academic plan and undergo evaluation by an advisory panel of outside experts sent in by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, she said. The panel will be unveiled later this month.

Widener University, which had a 52 percent rate, also cited its setting in Chester, a poor city with a low-performing school district.

"We are very concerned about how many of our students work," said Jo Allen, senior vice president and provost at Widener. "It's common in an urban area that if students need to work, they may drop back to part time."

Sister Francesca Onley, president of Holy Family University, emphasized pressures on working students, too. She said she hoped Obama's funding for improved graduation rates would be approved and used to help those students.

"Many students are working full-time and raising children while attending college. It's very difficult," said Sister Onley, whose school's rate was 58 percent but reports a higher one this year.

Widener's Allen cited another growing national trend called "swirling" - students attending three or four different colleges until they finish.

Widener, which said its rates in other recent years were higher, has improved orientation and added a staff/student mentor program to help students with lower GPAs, said Allen.

At Lincoln University, a historically black college, officials attributed the school's 38 percent rate to tougher academic standards and graduation requirements phased in over the last several years.

"There's been a consequent decrease [in graduation rate] as our student system begins to understand the academic standards," said Grant D. Venerable, vice president for academic affairs.

Philadelphia University called its 50 percent rate an "anomaly" with rates before and after ranging from 54 to 58 percent.

The university has also changed its first-year experience program and strengthened advising and student-support services, said Debbie Goldberg, a spokeswoman.

Temple University, which had a 60 percent rate, also said its numbers have been improving, to 65 percent for the freshman class of 2002. The school is aiming for 70 percent by 2014.

"We're bringing in stronger and stronger students, and that naturally is going to drive up our graduation rate," said William N. Black, senior vice provost for enrollment management.

At La Salle, which was tied for 10th place nationally in its category of competitive, administrators analyzed the performance of freshmen by courses.

In accounting, where large numbers of students were struggling, the school sent in student mentors, explained provost Richard Nigro.

"We're also very sensitive to how we assign faculty. We want to make sure our freshmen have the most talented faculty," said Nigro, who was pleased with the 74 percent rate but is striving for higher.

Gwynedd-Mercy, with a 77 percent rate, was fourth nationally in the competitive category. The school has a committee focused on retention and offers courses that focus on the freshman-year experience.

"Students also value the smaller class sizes, effective academic advising, tutoring, and counseling support," said spokeswoman Megan Gilmore.

Geri Hockfield Malandra, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, praised the report and said the conversation must shift to why there are variations and what can be done.

A 2004 national study that looked at schools particularly successful at retaining students from lower-income families found commonalities, she said. They include special programs for at-risk students, accessible faculty, residential programs that keep the students active on campus, strong financial aid, and greater selectivity.

"They may point students in a different direction if they're not really ready" for that college, she said.

Higher education, as an enterprise, should look carefully at the criticism, experts said.

"The country needs to do something about this," said Joni Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in higher education. "We see generations of students being lost."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.