04/12/2012 10:46 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

The Government's New Way of Measuring Student Success: Implications for Black Colleges

The federal government recently announced that it plans to change the way it measures student success. Instead of measuring graduation rates using first-time, full-time students, the new measurements will take into account part-time and transfer students. The Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS) has been outdated for several decades now and fails to take into account the changing landscape of students in the United States. This new change is good news for many of the nation's colleges and universities.

Although community college leaders are the main force behind this change in measurement, the new strategy will also have a significant impact on the measuring of student success at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well. A few years ago, I co-authored a policy paper for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which focused on changing the way IPEDS measures student success with the focus on HBCUs. In the paper, we noted that HBCUs serve many part-time, transfer, and stop-in/stop-out students. Unfortunately, IPEDS's traditional ways of measuring student success do not capture the impact of HBCUs on students. They fall through the cracks.

The new way of measuring success will capture, in part, the role that many HBCUs play. However, HBCUs, and community colleges for that matter, would benefit even more if the new plan for measuring student success took into account students' socio-economic status and preparation for college. HBCUs have large numbers of Pell Grant-eligible students and because some HBCUs are open enrollment institutions, they also often enroll students that are underprepared by the K-12 system. A system to measure student success that takes into account student characteristics would be much more fair to HBCUs (and other institutions that enroll low-income and underprepared students) because it would measure the value that these institutions add to students. It is much more difficult to graduate low-income and underprepared students than it is to graduate middle class and affluent students with high SAT scores. Measures of student success should capture the value added to students. For some time now, research has shown that if you control for socio-economic status and academic preparation, HBCUs graduate students at equal or better rates than their majority counterparts. Perhaps if we capture the value added to students by HBCUs, we would have a richer understanding of the worth of HBCUs in American society.

The new federal measurements are not official yet and they are not perfect, but they are a start. We are on our way to capturing student success, in terms of graduation rates, in a more complete and fair manner.