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Susan Meisenhelder Headshot

Higher Education at the Crossroads: The Graduation Rate Craze

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In the public debate about higher education, so much seems so simple. Certainly, the motto, KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid -- has been working great for slogans and sound bites by education pundits.

But, simplistic answers smother the real discussion we need to have about what it takes to ensure quality higher education. The truth is, it's a "complicated" endeavor. There are no easy answers. In fact, over-simplifying our standards for measuring success will very likely degrade, not improve higher education.

As an example, take what appears, on the face of it, to be the simplest measure of higher education success -- graduation rates.

The national "college completion agenda" got a big push when President Obama announced, as part of his plan to improve the country's global competitiveness, an ambitious goal to restore the U.S. to its former status as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates -- and by the year 2020.

It seems a straightforward -- even "no-brainer" -- kind of goal with common sense appeal. After all, for most people, graduation is what colleges and universities are all about.

Graduation also seems pretty easy to measure -- students either graduate or they don't. And once you've measured it, you can use that number to hold people accountable.

So, it's not surprising that the graduation rate has gained traction around the country as the pre-eminent measure of success in higher education. But as is so often the case, when something seems too simple and great to be true, it turns out that it isn't.

Without a critical analysis of the graduation numbers and especially the means used to increase them, we could wind up in 2020 having reached the graduation goals but with fewer well-educated people than we need -- and with more uneven distribution of higher education attainment than we should accept.

So what's so complicated?

Take President Obama's goal itself -- increasing the proportion of Americans with college degrees. Obviously, it's not just the degrees this country needs. It's what the degree represents -- a highly educated person who can function well in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world.

As the Association of American Colleges and Universities and others have emphasized, the quality of education and the breadth of student learning is just as important as graduation rates if we are to reach President Obama's goals for a highly educated America.

And then there are complexities in how the college completion agenda is implemented around the country.

Often the measures and the goals involve graduation rates, or the percentage of enrolled students at a college or university who actually graduate in 6 years.

That seems simple, but are improved graduation rates all we're interested in? If a college accepted only one brilliant student with a great high school education, terrific study skills, no family responsibilities, and plenty of money to support her/himself, that college would most likely have a graduation rate of 100% four years later.

The point is, simply improving graduation rates won't get us to the president's goal -- instead we need an increased absolute number of graduates.

As a report by the Education Trust points out, we need to expand access to higher education at the same time we work to improve college completion.

One unintended consequence of the exclusive focus on graduation percentages is that it can mask -- and even exacerbate -- problems with access to and equity in our nation's colleges and universities.

For example, one way to improve a graduation rate is to exclude students who face greater challenges to graduating. If, under pressure to improve graduation rates, colleges moved in this direction it would have disastrous consequences for groups of Americans that are already under-represented in our colleges and universities.

Focusing exclusively on graduation rates can also mean insufficient focus on quality and academic rigor. This can take a variety of forms, including decreasing the number of units required for graduation or eliminating difficult courses. At some point, "facilitating graduation" in ways like these becomes plain old cheapening of degrees.

As a report by the California Faculty Association on the Graduation Initiative in the California State University system argues, improving graduation rates at the expense of access, equity and quality education is not the answer.

So what should we keep in mind when assessing the talk about graduation rates?

Avoid focusing exclusively on a single measure such as the graduation rate in a complex social enterprise like higher education. What's simple may not be what's smart.

A more fruitful direction would recognize that educational success, like human health, is a complex systemic process that requires a rich data picture (of both qualitative and quantitative measures) for full assessment.

Recognize the complexities and the limitations of the graduation rate "number."

As the American Council on Education has pointed out in a detailed report, there are in fact many graduation rate "numbers" and a variety of databases from which they are derived. All have their strengths and weaknesses.

We need to use more care in interpreting what graduation rates actually measure. There's an assumption that they straightforwardly measure how well a college or university is doing educating its students; but in fact, a number of factors that are beyond an institution's control -- financial aid availability and high school preparation, for instance -- affect a school's graduation rates.

The economic status of students plays a role. Colleges with poor students tend to have lower graduation rates than colleges with more well-to-do students. As one Education Trust study on graduation rates baldly summarizes, "On the whole, institutions that have lots of well-prepared students, ample institutional budgets and few students with unmet financial aid do in fact have higher graduation rates than those that don't."

Beware of using graduation rates in a game of sticks and carrots. More and more states are moving toward using graduation rates to make decisions about funding colleges and universities. We can expect system heads, campus presidents, and local administrators to follow suit.

A harder look in the admissions offices to weed out high risk students, a little trimming on the curricular and quality side to "facilitate graduation," a little more performance pay for deans whose colleges show graduation improvement, a little less funding for colleges that don't sufficiently improve graduation rates can soon add up to improved graduation rates but worse higher education for our country overall.

Focus on what helps students graduate.

Not everything that influences graduation rates and student success is beyond our control. Research suggests that graduation rates can be improved by some fairly predictable measures -- greater student engagement with their institutions, high quality advising, smaller classes (especially at the beginning of their careers), and investments in student services, for example.

Focusing attention in these areas could improve graduation rates in ways that would also improve access, equity and quality of education.

Unfortunately, in tough budget times like ours, when any talk about investments in our nation's future elicits a snort, when more and more courses are going online, and when students are increasingly pulled from their studies and their campuses by stark economic realities, real improvement in graduation rates and, more importantly, achieving President Obama's goal for a highly educated America, will be anything but simple.