Graduation Rate Fuzzy Math

Jason Fertig

College graduation rates are fashionable metrics in higher education circles. Low rates can cost public institutions state funding and can also accelerate educational reforms, such as the adoption of more distance courses to meet nontraditional students’ needs.

Yet, if we strip graduation rates down to the bare essentials by removing the layers of economics and politics, what does the statistic really convey? Is a low graduation rate necessarily bad?  Certainly, poor teaching and advising can fail to equip students with the tools needed to succeed in their studies. But good teaching involves holding high standards and helping students jump over the high bar, while ultimately letting the ones who fail know that their work is inadequate to move forward.

In that same line of thinking, is a high graduation rate necessarily good? A selective school that only admits superior students who have a high probability of success leaves motivated students of weaker ability out in the cold.  On the flip side, educators can raise graduation rates simply by lowering course rigor (less writing or math, shorter readings, etc.) to accommodate the wide variance of ability and motivation in less selective schools.

With graduation rates as the backdrop, we turn to a December 2 column in the Chronicle, “College Grad Rates Stay Exactly the Same,” by Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector.

In this column, Carey presents graduation rate statistics from the Beginning Postsecondary Survey of the National Center for Education Statistics that highlight the differences in graduation rate between various groups of students.  I take no issue with the reporting of such statistics, but Carey’s conclusion about the report deserves some analysis:

All in all, this confirms what we already knew: College works well for the kind of student who has been going to college for a long time: white middle- and upper-class children of college graduates who enroll full-time directly after leaving high school.

Reporting frequency analysis does not confirm that anything “works well.”  At best, it can provide evidence to support a proposed hypothesis.  In the debate over graduation rates, both sides can have different hypotheses.  Additionally, there are multiple potential conclusions given the evidence presented:

Only 11.6 percent of students who start at community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

This statement suggests that those who enter community colleges are not prepared and thus fail out of their bachelor’s degree programs.  But what about students who can meet their career goals through an associate’s degree (e.g. radiology, business, etc.)?  Perhaps some students’ degrees also take longer than six years because courses do not transfer from institution to institution and thus need to be repeated.

The bachelor’s degree graduation rate for students who start at public four-year institutions is 59.5 percent. At private nonprofits, 64.6 percent. At for-profits, 15.7 percent. Even taking into account 14.6 percent of the latter students who get associate’s degrees (compared to 3.8 at both public and private non-profits), that’s still not a very good number.

What is a good number?  Taken at face value, 15% is less than 60%, but does that signify anything other than that there are differences that warrant investigation? Is 60% graduation too high?  Are private schools too selective?  Are public schools not rigorous enough?  On the flip side, are for-profits too expensive?

While 45 percent of recent high-school graduates earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, nine percent of non-recent high school graduates do the same.

Is this bad?  In my classes, the majority of “non-recent high school graduates” take 1-2 classes per semester and they are fine with their plan.  They are also my best students because they come to class with a purpose as opposed to traditional students who feel like college is simply their next step.  I want more of these students in the classroom.

Among students who were always enrolled full time while they were in school, 29.7 percent were not enrolled in college and had no degree six years after starting college. Among students who were always enrolled part time, the equivalent number was 71.3 percent.

What was the proposed graduation time for these part-timers?  A part-time student normally takes between 3-9 credit hours per semester.  With such a plan, 120 credits are accumulated in a minimum of 14 semesters (i.e. seven years unless summer courses are involved).

Students who were 18 years old or younger when they started college in 2003 were 10 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who were 30 years or older.

The younger students are also more likely to have less extracurricular obstacles to graduation.  Is the lack of completion for the older students an ability or motivation issue?  Additional research is needed.

Racial gaps widen as students move up the degree ladder. White students starting at two-year institutions have about the same likelihood as black students of earning a certificate, are 60 percent more likely to earn an associate’s degree, and are more than twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. The graduation rate for white students starting at four-year institutions is 62.6 percent, compared to 40.5 percent for black students and 41.5 percent for Hispanic students.

This particular analysis is too general to draw any specific conclusions about white vs. non-white students.  For instance, I’d like to see this comparison performed within two-parent households to see if there is the same difference. 

Additionally, if we suspend political correctness for a second – what would be a desirable graduation rate for non-whites?  Given the current state of many inner city schools, perhaps 40% is a high number for college completion.  This is not to discount any achievement gap between the races; there are real educational problems in play, but the statistics presented here do not have the same effect as they would were they compared to a graduation rate benchmark.  

And what is the graduation rate for Asians? That number is nowhere to be found in Carey’s assessment. What does this say about our society’s priorities?

There’s almost a 30-percentage point gap (40.4 to 69.3) in the graduation rate for four-year students whose parents never went to college compared to students whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree or more.

Does Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf’s kid have a better chance of becoming a professional tennis player than a child of two parents who rarely play tennis, all other things equal?

Most four-year students in the bottom income quartile don’t earn bachelor’s degrees on time (47.1 percent) whereas three-quarters of top-quartile students (76.4 percent) do.

There is a greater probability that students from the bottom income quartile have to work through school, thus delaying graduation.  Why is this negative?  Are these students earning degrees, just in a longer timeframe?  I’d rather that be the case then have them graduate “on time” with $50,000 of student loan debt.  What is the average student loan bill for that 47.1%?

Perhaps Carey would agree with some of my points. I agree with his statement:

It’s easy enough for skeptics to assert that these students aren’t graduating because they’re not college material. I think this massively discounts the likelihood that institutions whose basic structures and cultures were established decades or even centuries ago, for a particular kind of student, have done a poor job of adapting to the needs of different students going to college in a different time.

As I proposed in my essay on hybrid courses, certainly the one-size-fits-all course design of yesteryear can be modified.  Yet “skeptics” like myself disagree with narratives like Carey’s because we feel college “works well” even when the graduation rate is not 100% (or even 50%).  

In the end, regardless of where someone sets that graduation rate benchmark, what is important here is that there is discussion of that benchmark.  Without that benchmark, the graduation rate statistics can tell multiple stories.  Remember, one man’s tax cut extension is another man’s tax increase.

The ultimate goal for higher education should be improved teaching.  I question whether that can take place without some agreement on the information signaled by graduation rates.

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