Graduation vs. Learning

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One of the primary measures of college effectiveness in America is a school’s graduation rate. A high graduation rate in a normal period of time (say four to six years) means a school is doing all right. Low graduation means something is wrong.

Well not everyone agrees with this measure. As Morton Marcus writes in the Logansport, Indiana Pharos-Tribune:

The dimmer wits in the Indiana General Assembly want to compensate colleges and universities according to their graduation rates. This is another example of shallow reasoning by our elected representatives reflecting erroneous thought that has permeated our society.

…Indiana Commission[er] for Higher Education… Teresa Lubbers said, “There is nothing more important to Indiana’s higher education agenda than improving college completion rates. While Hoosiers have come to understand the increasing value of going to college, far too many of college” going students fail to earn a degree.”

Nothing more important than completion rates? What about the substance and significance of what is learned?

While I sort of question Marcus’ central premise, that somehow graduation isn’t a relevant measure of academic success, he’s got a point. Graduation, after all, is not the primary function of college. Graduation is the byproduct. It’s actually far more important to try and figure out what students actually get out of college.

But the reluctance to figure out what students learn in college isn’t limited to Hoosier State. In fact most institutions of higher education are notoriously reluctant to reveal any data about outcomes.

Oddly, it turns out the American public is actually pretty lucky it can even compare graduation rates—however limited that measure is—across institutions.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer