Graduation Rates Can Be Predicted More Precisely by Examining Student Characteristics, Report Says

November 29, 2011

The methods used by colleges to predict graduation rates are less than accurate because they leave out key information about the types of students institutions enroll, says a new report from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Colleges could more precisely assess how effective they are at moving students toward degree completion by taking into account the social, economic, and psychological characteristics of first-time freshmen, the report says.

The report, "Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions," combines data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's Freshman Survey, which gathers information on students as they enter college, and graduation data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

"The raw graduation rate doesn't tell the full story," said Sylvia Hurtado, institute director and a co-author of the report. "Sometimes an institution's story is slightly better than they think" because the institution is graduating students at a higher rate than might be expected for students with those particular characteristics. She said the more colleges know about their students and their backgrounds, the more successful they will be at helping them finish their degrees.

Raw graduation rates tend to favor the most-selective institutions and penalize those that offer broad access or enroll large number of first-generation students, even if the institutions are successful in helping their students earn degrees, the report says.

Many colleges now use basic student information such as race and ethnicity, gender, high-school grade-point average, and SAT and ACT scores to project an expected graduation rate. By considering other, more-personal characteristics, such as how students rate their emotional health, whether they are the first in their family to attend college, and whether they anticipate having to work full time while enrolled, an institution can increase the accuracy of its four-year graduation-rate prediction by 66 percent, its five-year rate by 54 percent, and its six-year rate by 53 percent, says the report.

The report found that the four-year graduation rate at public four-year colleges is 23.5 percent. That's actually higher than the predicted rate, 19.3 percent, which takes into account the broader characteristics of enrolled students.

Private universities graduate a higher share of students in four years than public institutions do, with a rate of 64 percent. The expected private-university graduation rate is actually slightly higher, 67.7 percent, when students' traits are considered in the calculation.

"We need to be fair to students' needs and to the institution when assessing completion rates," Ms. Hurtado said.

The report makes available a degree-completion calculator so colleges can evaluate their own graduation rates using alternative characteristics.