Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Who counts?

In this post, I discuss federally defined graduation rates. 

If you have not heard, accountability of the sort that has been in place for K-12 for more than a decade seems to be creeping into higher education. 

In some ways, I am happy that this discussion is taking place. As a professor, I take pride in seeing students learn, grow, graduate, and move on to success in their adult lives. I think it is good that institutions of higher education are looking at graduation as a measure of the accomplishments of an institution, and that they are focusing on ways to support students in reaching their goals. However, as often happens, finding an appropriate way to measure graduation is not as simple as it seems, and the current definition does a great disservice to some institutions.

Much of the discussion of graduation rates is based on the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR), which measures the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who graduate within six years of entering their original four-year institution. If you went to college immediately after high school, took classes full-time while working part-time, and graduated within 6 years, this definition probably seems perfectly reasonable on the face of it. If you fit that profile, congratulations. More than half of college students do not.

For purposes of illustration, suppose we are looking at the graduation rate for “Big State University (BSU).” In the FGR:
  • Transfers are not counted for anyone’s benefit. If a student begins his/her college career at another institution (whether a community college or another 4-year institution), and transfers to, and later graduates from, BSU, that student is not counted toward the success of either BSU or the original institution. Neither one!
  • If a student begins his/her BSU career at less than a full-time unit load (often 12 units), or begins in mid-year, then s/he also does not get counted toward the success (or failure) of the institution. Nothing that happens with that student will impact the FGR reported by BSU.
  • I have been told, but have not been able to verify, that even if a student withdraws for a semester, or stops taking full-time course loads, that s/he is removed from eligibility to be counted as a graduate.
Taking these factors into account, the American Council on Education estimates that about 61% of students at 4-year schools are excluded from the calculation. Sixty-one percent! How do institutions have a conversation about their successes and shortcomings when they ignore more than half of the students in their calculation?

To give you another perspective, I looked at my own institution to find out how many of our graduates are being counted toward our success, as measured by the FGR.

Using public Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from my institution, the data and my calculations indicate that 306 students who graduated from the university in 2012-2013 were among the students counted in the FGR, meaning that they were first-time, full-time freshmen in one of the years 2007-2010. Does that sound like a cozy and intimate graduation ceremony? I guess that depends on where you went to school. But in fact, the institution awarded 2,481 bachelor’s degrees in the 2012-2013 academic year. That means that fewer than 1 in every 8 graduates is counted as part of the university’s official graduation rate. How do we define the success of an institution when 7 out of every 8 students receiving degrees, or more than 2,100 of its graduates, do not count toward the accomplishments of the institution?

The university serves a population with a lot of students eligible for financial aid, and serves a lot of non-traditional students who may work full-time. That is part of the institution’s mission, and one I am proud to serve. But the FGR does not measure our success.

So, the next time you hear about graduation rates in higher education, be glad that the individuals care about students being able to complete their degree. And then tell them that there is a lot of success that is not being counted.

I am not the first person to make at least some of the points here. Yesterday, I searched for “federally defined graduation rate” and I got hits that included articles and blog posts making exactly some of the points here. But I don’t think they have looked at the problem from the other end, how many of an institution’s graduates are or are not students who count for the FGR.

Here is one example of an article discussing some of these issues:

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