09/30/2013 08:18 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Let's Be Honest About Graduation Rates

Lately, college affordability seems to have become the central theme of many commentators about higher education, both within academe and from other sectors such as the federal and state governments.

While affordability is indeed an issue that we in higher education administration certainly must and do wrestle with, I am sensing a disturbing trend emerging from these recent discussions: a movement to measure an institution's success and relative affordability by its four-year rather than the traditional six-year graduation rate.

For some years now, the federal government has used a six-year rate as one of many ways of comparing the performance of colleges. The principal source of federal data on colleges is what we all call IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Operated by a unit of the U.S. Department of Education, IPEDS gathers data from every institution of higher education that participates in federal student financial aid programs.

A key datum collected by IPEDS has been the six-year graduation rate. Recently, however, a number of politicians and organizations -- including a database recently made available by the Chronicle of Higher Education -- are beginning to track or at least talk about tracking four-year rates. Focusing on four-year rates is misleading for many reasons.

A four-year graduation rate assumes an entirely different student population from what exists in higher education today. It presumes the college experience of many decades ago when most college students came from relatively affluent middle-class backgrounds (or better), were of traditional college age -- that is, about 18 -- and were not the first in their families to attend college.

It is easy to assume that students fitting this profile will likely graduate in four years. They have the priceless advantage of having family members who have experience with how colleges work.

If you know in advance what colleges look for in applicants for admission, then you have an advantage over those who don't. If you understand that not all colleges are created equal and that a certain group of them will be the best fit for you, then you have an advantage in getting into the right one in the first place.

If you have been coached by your family on how to choose a major and on the importance of staying in touch with your adviser, this is another advantage. And, most importantly, if your family can support you during your college years so that you do not have to work and you can afford a private tutor if you need one, then you have the greatest advantage of all.

This is neither the profile nor the experience of the majority of college students today. The demographics have shifted dramatically.

Today, many of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, many are people of color, or citizens of other countries. Some are single parents or products of them. Many have no choice but to work while they are attending college.

Unlike the college population of, say, Leave It to Beaver vintage, females outnumber males in their classrooms. And a large number of college students are older than what we have always termed traditional age -- sometimes substantially older. In other words, the so-called traditional age student is no longer the tradition.

Adding to this demographic mix are two growing subpopulations: family members of those serving in our armed forces and military veterans. The first may face unpredictable redeployments during their college years, and the second often bring their own challenges to college life, including problems with sustained concentration and struggles with posttraumatic stress.

In short, the population of college students in 2013 is nothing like the typical population in the 1950s or '60s -- or even the 1970s, for that matter.

And culture-specific factors can further complicate matters. Colleges in Utah, Idaho and adjacent states, for example, experience a common phenomenon: a large portion of the student population in many colleges in these states is Mormon. It is not uncommon for students to "disappear" in their sophomore years to go on a mission. Some will return to college a year or two later; some will not. Either way, this context-specific phenomenon skews graduation-rate tallies, especially if a four-year rate is considered the goal.

In addition, many colleges are offering unique programs that take longer than four years, such as courses of study that bypass a bachelor's degree and that result in a master's degree in either five or six years. Such programs can further skew an entire institution's graduation rate if four years is the benchmark.

Clearly, the vastly diverse student body that today comprises our college population is much different from the homogeneous student body of decades ago. Assuming that this diverse population as a group should be expected to graduate in four years without the same social, cultural, and financial advantages of their more privileged predecessors is unrealistic.

Adding to the unfairness about how graduation rates are tracked is that transfer students are not accounted for, only students who enroll as first-year students and who either do or don't graduate from that same institution. Since in some colleges transfer students account for a large proportion of their student body and they do in fact go on to graduate, shouldn't these students be counted?

And besides, what about the first-rate student who enrolls in my college and after a year or two transfers to Harvard? I would consider that to be a positive outcome: we trained that student so well that she was able to complete her degree at an ivy league institution. Under the current system, however, my institution's graduation rate takes a ding, and Harvard's doesn't get affected one way or the other.

Occasionally, the language of some proponents of "holding colleges accountable" by monitoring their four-year graduation rates is adversarial, suggesting that somehow colleges are conspiring to keep students from graduating.

The truth is, most institutions I know have long been on a campaign to streamline general education and academic major curricula to enable students to graduate in a timely fashion. It is in the benefit of every college to graduate students sooner than later not only for their own good but so that they will become happy alumni. No one benefits when students drag out their courses of study for long periods of time.

Of course, if simply pumping students through the system is truly the goal, then I can solve that problem in an instant: become a diploma mill and hand out degrees with no concern about the quality of education those degrees represent. I would like to believe that everyone agrees that this would be an unacceptable price to pay for higher graduation rates.

Now, don't get me wrong. The larger issue of college affordability is extremely important. College costs are soaring. Many college graduates are reporting unacceptable levels of debt from their college education. This is a problem that warrants our continued attention. But debt from a college education is a multifaceted phenomenon and is not a simple matter of students' taking too long -- or worse, being forced to take too long -- to graduate.

If we genuinely want to provide better information to the "consumers" of education, as many who are preoccupied with four-year graduation rates say they are, then we should begin by being honest about the complex interrelationships between college curricula and the richly diverse population that today comprises our college student bodies.