When people look to measure the success of colleges they often look to the school’s graduation rate. If an institution graduates 87 percent of students, we might say it’s doing a pretty good job. If the graduation rate is 10 percent, however, that indicates something’s going very wrong.

What this graduation rate technically means, however, is kind of weak.

The federal government tracks the graduation rate of institutions for first-time, full time students. That means the completion rate, in 6 years, of those who enter as full time students having never tried college before. That’s what we think of as college students, but it’s by no means all college students. In fact the majority of college students are “nontraditional” ; they’re older than 24 and many have tried college before.

Is it time to measure the graduation rate differently? Well, let’s be prepared for lower graduation rates then. According to an article by Charles Dervarics in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

The federal government’s method of collecting college graduation rates is outdated and does not take into account the large number of nontraditional students now in higher education, witnesses told a House of Representatives [higher education subcommittee] on Thursday.

Witnesses also noted that colleges may be hesitant to disclose graduation rates due to the limitations of the data. For example, a college with a 48 percent graduation rate may be doing better than a college with a 68 percent rate if it is enrolling many low-income, nontraditional students, said James Hallmark, vice chancellor at Texas A&M University.

The House higher education subcommittee held the hearing as it prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act beginning next year. During the hearing, Republicans who lead the panel expressed concern about the heavy reporting burden facing post-secondary institutions.

Yea, that’s one problem. The other thing wrong with any major reform efforts in this area is that, while it might be useful for researchers to have more data about college success, collecting information for any other completion rate is unlikely to result in colleges returning better completion rates than they do now.

The graduation rate for first-time, full time students enrolled in four-year institutions was about 54 percent. That’s not very good, but researchers estimate that less than a quarter of part-time students graduate.

Do colleges really have an interest in providing this new information?

Hallmark’s referencing a college with a graduation rate of 48 percent doing pretty well if it had many low-income, nontraditional students ignores the fact that a school that graduated 48 percent of traditional students would be decidedly unlikely to graduate a higher percentage of nontraditional students. Indeed, recording that number would almost certainly make the school’s graduation rate appear worse.

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