Why Colleges Don’t Want to Be Judged by Their Graduation Rates

Why Colleges Don’t Want to Be
Judged by Their Graduation Rates

This fall, President Obama will release a college-rating system that is likely to include graduation rates as a key measure of institutional success. That worries colleges, which have long complained that the official government figures leave out many successful graduates. The federal rate counts only first-time, full-time students who graduate within a certain time frame.

Look at the Education Department’s first Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study, begun in 2003, and you’ll see several categories of students that the federal rate overlooks.

The Bottom Line

Taken together, those limitations mean that millions of potential graduates are left out of the federal government’s official rate. In 2012 only 55 percent of all new enrollees at four-year institutions (including transfer-ins) were first-time, full-time students. More than two million new students weren’t. The numbers were even worse at community colleges, where only 41 percent of new students were first-time, full-time.

The good news is that better data do exist. The National Student Clearinghouse, which includes part-time and transfer students in its database, can follow students over longer periods of time than the government does. Jamienne S. Studley, deputy under secretary of education, has said that the Education Department is considering using that database in its evaluation of colleges. The clearinghouse says it could provide the data, with institutions’ permission.

That would make a big difference for community colleges, which could see their graduation rates double. According to the government, community colleges graduate just 21.2 percent of their students within three years. But the clearinghouse follows them for six years, and it found that nearly 40 percent of students who started at a community college in 2007 did go on to graduate from their starting institution or another one.

There’s just one thing standing in the way: Congress. Lawmakers have barred the department from creating a unit-record system with information on students who don’t receive federal aid. Unless Congress lifts the ban, the department will have to either rely on the National Student Clearinghouse to aggregate the data or calculate its own rate, based solely on federal grant and loan recipients. And that, unfortunately, would leave many students out.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and 2003-4 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. Accessed using PowerStats.

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