Real College Graduation Rates

The Department of Education has announced that it’s planning to change the way it measures college graduation rates.

For years the department has measured graduation only in terms of the rate for first-time, full-time freshman.

But now that the Obama administration, and many states, is focusing on college graduation to measure academic success of colleges, many schools are protesting. Administrators from many schools, particularly those that enroll a significant number of nontraditional students, object that such a calculation doesn’t reflect their actual success; so few of their students are first time, full time students.

As Deborah Douglas, director of public relations and communications at Chicago State University, complained recently:

Graduation rates are based on IPEDS data, which bases graduation rates on first-time, full-time freshmen. This population is tiny at Chicago State; this year, they comprise 9 percent of our student body of about 7,000 students. A truer number would be to look at the graduation rate for transfer students, who comprise 53.2 percent of our 2011-12 new student enrollment.

Chicago State University is well known as being a transfer school. We excel at servicing older students, average age 29, who often have families and work full-time jobs. The graduation rate for transfers is 50.1 percent. This is the true and relevant fact missing from official figures that don’t count the life trajectories of nontraditional students, most of whom come to us from beleaguered public schools.

Whether or not what Douglas is saying is accurate, however, is actually pretty hard to verify independently since no one tracks the numbers across institutions.

But Douglas might be in luck. According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education:

To provide more complete information on student persistence and completion, the Education Department released an action plan today that takes steps to augment its current measures of student success in postsecondary education. Graduation rate reporting required for institutions of higher education will be broadened to include part-time and other students who have previously attended postsecondary education.

Current law excludes a substantial portion of the student population by only requiring that schools track graduation rates for full-time, first-time students. The additional reporting would supplement this existing requirement.

About 7000 postsecondary institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report their graduation rates through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In addition to taking steps to expand the population of students to include part-time and others who are not attending postsecondary education for the first time, NCES is examining other measures to better document students’ progression through higher education as well as other significant outcomes.

The actual details of the new graduation rate tracking plan are unclear. The action plan leaves a great deal still to be determined.

That being said, the odd method the federal government has for years used to measure graduation rates has long been the subject of complaint. The revision has significant potential to be an improvement. Or, at any rate, at least we might have a better idea what happens to all of those transfer students and part timers.

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