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Dr. Robert Mendenhall Headshot

Looking Beyond Graduation Rates

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For many years, the U.S. has focused on increasing access to higher education, but as costs continue to spiral up, the focus is shifting more and more to college completion. The most widely used measure of college completion is graduation rates. While graduation rates can be a significant indicator of the quality of a college or university, they are often misunderstood and misused.

When looking at graduation rates, here are some important issues to consider:

  • Graduation rates tell us nothing about what students are learning. In fact, we can increase graduation rates by lowering standards. Students will learn less, but rates will go up. To measure actual student learning, we need to look at other indicators.
  • Graduation rates tell us nothing about the students being served. In fact, the rates most often cited are those from the Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Data System, or IPEDS, which only collects data for first-time, full-time college students -- less than 25 percent of all U.S. college students today. For institutions focused on adult learners, IPEDS only tracks about 5 percent of enrolled students, so it doesn't give an accurate picture of completion rates. In addition, many students attend multiple institutions before completing a degree, and IPEDS has no way to track them either.
  • The most selective colleges and universities have the highest graduation rates because they only admit the top 5 percent of applicants -- students who could succeed and graduate anywhere. Colleges can improve graduation rates if they only admit highly qualified students, but reducing access won't help us meet our national goals for college completion, and we will leave underserved students behind.
  • In many cases, students enroll in college to complete a few courses or even a certification, never intending to finish a degree. Even though these students have succeeded in doing what they set out to do, their success is marked as a failure because they did not complete a degree. This is especially problematic for community colleges.

Here are three things we need to do to ensure that graduation rates provide real information about institutional quality:

  1. Establish better data systems that will track graduation rates for all students, not just first-time, full-time students.
  2. Calibrate the data to take into account the students being served to ensure that our data doesn't drive us to limit access for underserved populations.
  3. Compare rates among institutions with similar students.

Improving the way we track and compare graduation rates is an important step in helping us do a better job of evaluating quality in higher education, but we need to do more. Graduation rates can be meaningful as we evaluate the quality of our colleges and universities, but only if they are used in the context of the students being served and with additional information about the actual learning taking place.

Third party measures, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, and professional licensing exams, such as the PRAXIS for teachers and the NCLEX for nurses, can help validate some learning outcomes, but we need more. And, we need more feedback and data from employers who hire our graduates to verify that our students' learning is preparing them for their careers. It's time to look beyond graduation rates and find ways to measure what our college graduates are learning.