05/26/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Jul 26, 2013

Graduation Rates Are Not the Only Measure of Educational Success

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I never tire of the ceremony of a college graduation. This past week, attending my daughter's graduation from Johns Hopkins University, I watched a thousand young men and women begin the next step of their life journeys. A thousand students, from literally every corner of the globe, walked across the stage, their faces beaming, while in the audience parents, siblings, relatives and friends watched in pride.

Graduating from college is a threshold step in the American dream. Not just for students, but for their families, and for past and future generations. When we focus our attention only on the students, we tend to lose sight of the trans-generational significance of higher education. We lose sight of the toil and sweat of grandparents, of the diligent support and financial commitment of parents, and of the generations to come whose opportunities will be transformed.

An African American friend and colleague of mine once remarked that his completing college -- to say nothing of his law degree and doctorate -- would have a greater impact on the wealth of subsequent generations than if had made the NBA. An NBA star can make millions, but dollars alone can easily dissipate. But by graduating from college, the family culture and expectations around education would be forever altered, and with it the life opportunities of his children and of generations to come.

And his observation is more true now than it was a decade or so ago when he made it. The growing issue of income inequality is in large measure a product of the growing premium that competitive globalized labor markets place on educational attainment. The data are well known. On average, high school graduates earn about half of what college graduates earn, and the greater the level of educational attainment, the more stark the comparison. In a similar vein, the economic collapse of 2008 had minimal impact on those with at least a bachelor's degree, while the economic opportunities for others were devastated, and they have yet to recover.

In this economic landscape, improving educational attainment outcomes has become a primary goal of public policy. In light of this goal, two key metrics have come to define -- in public policy as well as in U.S. News rankings -- the quality and effectiveness of individual higher educational institutions: student persistence -- the percentage of students who return to school for their second year -- and graduation rates. Accordingly, colleges invest an increasing share in limited resources to providing support to struggling students -- as well as seeking "better" students -- to improve their outcomes along these metrics, and thereby demonstrate their increasing quality and effectiveness to potential students, alumni donors, accrediting bodies, and the political establishment.

However, as much as we prefer simple measures of complex problems, equating success with persistence and graduation rates may obscure a more nuanced story. Over the past several decades, we have doubled the college participation rate -- the share of the high school graduates who go on to college -- to over 70 percent, and along the way a higher share of college matriculents are first generation students. For these students, whose parents did not attend college, the definition of success is often more complicated.

Even as my wife and I flew to Johns Hopkins -- an elite university where student persistence rates are nearly 100 percent, and well over 90 percent graduate -- she told me about a student of hers -- call her Marielle -- who will not be coming back for her sophomore year at Mills College, the small, liberal arts college where she works. Marielle comes from a rural family, is the first in her family to go to college, and did well in her first year. But she will go home because her mother told her the she and Marielle's brother "need her to be home." Perhaps she will continue to take classes at the local community college next year.

Marielle's is not an unusual story. Unlike Johns Hopkins, almost one-third of Mills College students are the first in their family to attend college. The most recently published data suggest that 77 percent of students return for their second year, and 63 percent graduate. Marielle will go home, and she may or may not return to school.

But Marielle's departure should not be viewed -- as statistically it will be -- as evidence of failure by Mills College. In our higher educational marketplace, schools play different roles and take on different challenges. Johns Hopkins is a world-renowned research institution, while Mills is an excellent undergraduate college that takes pride in admitting students like Marielle, and supporting them to go as far as they can. And each school defines success differently and official statistics should reflect these differences. By finishing a year of college, Marielle has embarked on a transformative pathway that will continue in her family. She may accede to her mother's wishes, but one thing is clear: she has taken the important first step and her own children will likely go to college. They will have the opportunity to complete the journey that Marielle started. In the world of first generation college students, Marielle is a story of success.

Marielle's story made me appreciate all the more the majesty of the commencement at Johns Hopkins. This was the moment that one imagines Marielle will dream about, and those dreams will uplift generations to come. Just as my grandfather -- like so many others -- brought his family across the ocean for opportunities that would never be his, Marielle has become the spark that will lift up her own future family. Thus, those who may pronounce Marielle a failure when she heads home miss the point. Whether Marielle ultimately completes her degree or not, she has begun the process of changing her family's culture and expectations around education -- and the economic possibilities attendant with that change -- for generations to come.

For all of our fretting about the cost of higher education, we should never lose sight of its transcendent power and purpose. Stories of how Governor Rick Perry wants to take apart the university system in Texas -- as his advisers suggest that it could better meet the needs of industry and workers if it is restructured closer to the community college model -- miss the point. Higher education in America today is not simply about meeting the labor force needs of industry today; it is about the elevation of the human spirit and the potential created for generations to come. It is not even simply about meeting the needs of students today, but it is where the work of families from one generation to the next bears fruit, and the historical trendlines of economic determinism are broken down.

Walking across the stage at Johns Hopkins along with my daughter were students from across the globe. Parents from China and India and Iran and Brazil sent their children to Baltimore, carrying their hopes and dreams -- as well as those of their ancestors and of generations yet to come. They came because the American higher education system -- itself born in imitation of the great universities of England and Italy and Germany -- is now the envy of the world, and their children will graduate not just with skills, but empowered to remake the world and reimagine the future.

Based on data from the National Center for Economic Statistics, Marielle's story is the same story that first generation college students have faced for decades. The integration into the academic life and the social life of college is harder for them than for those whose parents went to college. But first generation college students like Marielle are the torchbearers of the American Dream. They are driven not by what a college education offers them, but what it will do for their children. Their dream is not simply of wealth or security, it is to sit in the seats as my wife and I did, and see the fulfillment of their own dreams in their children.