Earlier this month, I posted a list of the 10 colleges with the lowest graduation rates in the Washington region. I did this for a couple of reasons: first, to contrast the intense public awareness of low high school graduation rates to the comparatively dim awareness of low completion rates at colleges; and second, to foreshadow a (possible) eventual showdown between federal officials and college leaders over the investment of federal Pell grant dollars in colleges where only a small fraction of grantees are likely to graduate.

Patricia McGuire (Katherine Frey/Washington Post)

Here, by way of response, is a guest post from Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. I should note, before I yield the floor, that I have previously argued that Trinity’s 40-percent graduation rate is praiseworthy, because the Northeast Washington institution outperforms other schools with similar demographic challenges.

Dropouts.  Lost. Vanished. 

According to the federal formula for calculating the graduation rates of colleges and universities, close to a majority of all college students are dropouts or lost to the system entirely, even if they have earned degrees.  For Trinity and many similar universities --- those that enroll large numbers of students who transfer in, or who are part-time students, or who are “non-traditional” by many other factors --- a majority of the degrees awarded go to students who don’t count in the federal data system. 

The collegiate graduation rate may well be the most poorly constructed and misunderstood statistic in all of higher education. 

The metric became fashionable in the 1990’s in an effort to track the academic condition of NCAA athletes who seemed to be leaving college in large numbers without graduating.  (No wonder the statistic doesn’t work well for most institutions today!)

Despite the rate’s well-known deficiencies (the American Council on Education has published a detailed report on this topic), many policy leaders, philanthropists and education critics solemnly invoke this flawed metric as evidence of a college’s academic quality and public accountability for student learning outcomes.  The graduation rate does not measure either.  Using bad data to indict institutions is pernicious.  Higher education needs more accurate accountability measures.

What’s wrong with the current graduation rate data?  Consider these myths and realities:

  Myth:  A college’s “graduation rate” is the best measure of its educational effectiveness.

 Reality:   The graduation rate, as currently established in the U.S. Department of Education data system (IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System), is all about seat time in one institution for a narrowly defined cohort of students (first-time full-time freshmen, the most traditional of all students).  Perhaps more cynically, the rate is about brand loyalty --- the percentage of students who stay at the same college and finish degrees in six years.

 The graduation rate is very old news by the time the IPEDS data becomes public seven or eight years after the cohort’s initial enrollment, lagging well behind more current institutional data on retention and persistence strategies, a fading snapshot that completely ignores dynamic change across subsequent years.

  Myth:  A college’s graduation rate specifies how many students earn degrees.

 Reality:  Graduation rate data is not the same as degree attainment, which is the real measure of how many students actually earn degrees.  Many more students earn degrees than the graduation rate indicates.  Why?  Because the graduation rate does not include transfer students (some studies show that more than one-third of all undergraduates transfer to one or more schools) or part-time students (46 percent of all undergraduates nationwide), or students who have elongated their degree timetable by stopping out for work and family obligations.

These and other “non-traditional” types of students are nearly 75 percent of all undergraduates nationally.  But the federal method for calculating the graduation rate only considers the most “traditional” kind of students --- first-time full-time freshmen who enroll in the fall and graduate from that college within six years.  Students who transfer to other colleges are counted as drop-outs even if they complete degrees in four years!

[Editor’s note: Even President Obama, who began college at Occidental College and finished at Columbia, counts as a drop-out in the federal formula.]

Myth:  Graduation rates for low-income students who are predominantly African American and Hispanic would improve if they attended universities with high graduation rates.

 Reality:  Universities do not choose graduation rates, but they choose students whose characteristics (family wealth, high school preparation, parental education) effectively determine the graduation rate.  Graduation rates are largely a function of market behaviors around college admission.

Dr. Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania has conducted extensive research on market behavior in higher education.  In his book Remaking the American Universityhe calls the top-ranked universities with high graduation rates “medallion institutions,” and the students they enroll are “zoomers” who have high probability of timely college graduation.  For zoomers, writes Zemsky,

 “…secondary school is a preparatory experience in much the same way that an Olympic training village prepares athletes for Olympic competition.  Primarily in secondary school these zoomers get ready, not just for college, but also for the rigors of the selection process through which top-ranked institutions pick the students to whom they will sell their high-priced products and services.” 

For those “medallion” institutions, Zemsky goes on,

“…it is a win-win situation.  They preserve their position in the marketplace principally by enrolling students who are seeking the competitive advantage a medallion degree confers.  The top-ranked institutions win precisely because they can choose those students most likely to succeed and most willing to pay an extraordinarily high price for an undergraduate degree.”

Medallion institutions have little incentive to enroll at-risk students in large numbers, and they have huge disincentives to consider doing so.  Sure, at the margins, some at-risk students can enroll in some very elite institutions and become as successful as their more advantaged peers.  But if elite institutions were to enroll at-risk students in the same proportion as broad-access universities do, their graduation rates would look more like the broad-access institutional graduation rates.    

 Myth:  Colleges with low graduation rates don’t care about the academic success of their students.

 Reality:  Colleges with lower graduation rates are the very institutions that have taken the risk of extending broad access to a much wider spectrum of students than the elite universities will consider.  The graduation rate is an index of admissions risk.  As Zemsky’s research illustrates, more elite universities take very few admissions risks, while broad-access colleges and universities take many risks in the admissions process, choosing to accept students who bring severe challenges to the college experience. 

A graduation rate below 50 percent does not necessarily mean that most students are not successful at a particular university, but rather, that the majority of students attend in non-traditional ways, probably earning credit in multiple schools and graduating in eight, ten or more years.

 The reasons for non-traditional graduation timetables are numerous, but these are the big three:

Money:  Economically advantaged students whose parents pay the tuition bills attend college with few other responsibilities; such traditional “college kids” are a distinct minority of students today.  Most students are adults (even the 18 year-olds) who have to support themselves to get through college; nearly half are considered “independent” for federal financial aid purposes.  Low-income students who work long hours to pay college expenses are often precisely the students whose high schools did not prepare them well for collegiate academics.  These students need more academic support, but sadly, they are the ones flipping burgers all night or racing to retail jobs at the malls instead of to the library or learning support center.  Stress builds steadily for such students, leading them to stop out for a few semesters, shop around for cheaper courses at multiple institutions, or move to part-time status to manage costs, which also elongates time-to-degree.

Family:  Family conditions can affect collegiate success in many ways.  Parental educational levels have a large impact on student achievement.  Students whose parents do not read (correlating clearly with poverty levels) are most at-risk of delayed collegiate completion.  Rising numbers of college students are parents, themselves, and many are single moms. Women are 60 percent of all undergraduates, often returning to college after stopping out to have a baby, support a spouse’s education or career moves, or care for family elders have driven the sharp rise in the proportion of women students nationally.  Such women are not “dropouts,” as the federal data treats them, but amazing success stories.

Academic preparation:  Students from dysfunctional urban school systems have large academic challenges on top of all of the other issues they face.  Basic academic concepts --- understanding a course syllabus, knowing how to use library and information resources, attending class regularly, doing homework --- can be elusive notions for students who had few such expectations in their prior learning experiences.  Such administrative concerns pale in comparison to the learning challenges under-prepared students face in comprehending collegiate reading assignments, absorbing math lessons and being able to write competently. 

Universities like Trinity that pursue a broad-access mission tackle these problems through generous financial aid packages and broad-based student support programs including extensive health care and personal counseling services.  The leading broad-access universities have developed successful general education programs for at-risk students that include:

 -- Summer bridge, gateway and first-year academic programs with highly structured course sequences emphasizing foundation skills and knowledge for collegiate success;

-- Learning communities led by senior faculty who are well-prepared to teach and advise students with risk factors;

-- High expectations for class attendance, since much evidence points to first-year class attendance as a major factor in collegiate success;

-- Intrusive advising and pro-active learning support services --- tutoring, math and writing workshops, information literacy seminars, coaching on study habits and time management.

Even with such extensive (and expensive!) support, students may not finish degrees on the traditional “graduation rate” timetable.  Some certainly drop out entirely, but many more stop out for months or years, returning mid-career to complete their degrees.

Do some institutions fail miserably at the task of educating at-risk students?  Yes.  A university that intentionally admits large numbers of students with risk factors without support to mitigate those risks is irresponsible.  Few universities are that cynical.  Many more, however, need help --- both expertise and financial --- to cope with the increasing volume of under-prepared low-income students flocking to college. 

 Myth:  We have to use the graduation rate because there is no other indicator of college success.

 Reality:  Continuing to use the wrong measurement does not make it right.  More accurate indicia of student success and institutional accountability for degree attainment are emerging.  The National Student Clearinghouse is a private organization hosting data for thousands of universities including tracking student migration across institutions, making it possible for institutions to assess what happens to students when they transfer elsewhere.  Because accreditors now require substantial evidence of student learning outcomes, colleges and universities are also more data-driven than ever before, and this data could be the basis for far more meaningful public reports on institutional accountability. 

Encouraging greater post-secondary achievement for all Americans is certainly a worthy public policy goal.  Holding academic institutions to high standards and expecting accountability for learning outcomes is reasonable and responsible.  But obtusely continuing to use a flawed yardstick to measure results that it is not designed to measure undermines the accountability system, builds resentment and resistance, and, ultimately, does not serve the public policy purpose of promoting greater degree attainment for more Americans.