12/09/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Grade Inflation, Academic Rigor, and College Graduation Rates

For some time now, college graduation rates have played an important role in the ranking formulas used by U.S. News, Forbes and other ranking organizations. The college rating system under development by the Obama administration would also place a high value on higher graduation rates. While some have tried to calibrate these rates against the quality of students enrolled as measured by test scores and high school GPA's, all of them treat a higher graduation rate as being an indicator of higher institutional quality, with the highest ranked colleges and universities in this category having graduation rates of over 95 percent.

One result of this practice has been the increasing interest shown by potential students and their parents in an institution's graduation rate, with some asking for what amounts to almost a guarantee that they or their child will graduate if they enroll.

Now when I was an undergraduate at a selective private engineering school in the '60s, the graduation rate of those who enrolled as freshmen was only a bit above 50 percent, and the average campus GPA was only slightly above a 2.0 (the required GPA for graduation). It would probably be overstating the case to say that this was a source of pride for the campus, but there was never any question about those who graduated being capable engineers. In fact, companies lined up to hire these graduates, including those with GPA's only slightly above the 2.0 minimum. Some of the students that I knew who didn't make the grade subsequently enrolled in other, less academically rigorous, institutions from which they later graduated, although their employment prospects were less promising.

And at RIT, where I serve as President, the graduation rate is about 70 percent, although time to graduation is almost a year longer than average because most of our students are required to spend a year in government or industry prior to graduation (RIT is one of the oldest Cooperative Education Colleges, or Co-op Schools, in the nation). A recent survey of our graduates taken 120 days after graduation indicated that 95 percent of them were either employed full-time in their field or going to graduate school full-time. This came as no surprise, since our last career fair drew more than 250 companies (with many more turned away for lack of space) eager to interview our students.

Now some readers will conclude that this high rate of post-graduation success is a result of RIT being an engineering school, but in fact we offer over 160 degree programs ranging from philosophy to art, from engineering to business, and from design to computer game development, and we have thousands of students enrolled in non-technical fields. We are also the host institution for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and 10 percent of our undergraduates are deaf or hard-of-hearing. For this group, the placement rate of our graduates is 94 percent, almost double the national average for these students.

For all colleges and universities, in fact, the relationship between graduation rates, academic rigor and the subsequent success of graduates is a complex one. And it should be obvious to the reader, therefore, that the inclusion of graduation rates in College ranking formulas has at least the potential to encourage grade inflation and lower academic standards. In fact, a reasonable strategy for a university trying to move up in the rankings would be to try to graduate 100 percent of those who enroll. And sadly, at many of our colleges and universities, the most common grade given today is an A.

I am deeply troubled by this misuse of graduation rates as an indicator of academic quality when in fact they could indicate, in some cases, exactly the opposite. The notion that a graduation rate near 100 percent is a sign of academic quality is simply nonsense. At RIT, 30 percent of our undergraduates receive Pell Grants and another 25 percent are the first from their family to attend college, and studies have shown that these students, while capable, are statistically more at-risk for college completion. Students drop out before graduation for many reasons. These include failure to meet our academic standards, personal health issues, financial problems, social problems, and family emergencies beyond their control.

I am not saying, however, that some colleges and universities shouldn't strive for higher retention and graduation rates. The appallingly low graduation rates of many for-profit universities have been justifiably criticized, for example. But I would strongly recommend against the use of this measure as an indicator of academic quality. In many cases, graduation rates may indicate either the opposite or (in most cases, probably) nothing at all related to the quality of education a student receives.