Graduation-Rates Study Gets Mixed Reviews at American Enterprise Institute Forum

June 03, 2009

Washington — A new study of colleges’ graduate rates, released today by the American Enterprise Institute, drew mixed reviews this morning at a panel discussion held by the institute.

The study, which compares the graduation rates of similarly selective colleges, “gives you one stone of a large mosaic,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University. “If information like this drove decisions, nobody would ever drive a motorcycle or buy a pack of cigarettes.” Mr. Trachtenberg said he felt the study had failed to account for variables beyond selectivity that affect graduation rates, such as the amount of financial aid offered by an institution or the number of its students who transfer to other colleges.

Graduation rates vary widely among colleges grouped by selectivity, especially among less-selective institutions such as community colleges, according to the study, which drew on data previously released by the U.S. Education Department. Graduation rates at the least-competitive institutions — mainly those with open-door admissions policies — ranged from 52 percent among the top third to 20 percent among the bottom third.

A student could enroll in a top-third open-door institution and have a coin flip’s chance of graduating, while the same student could enroll in a bottom-third open-door institution and have just a one-in-five chance of graduating, the study’s authors said at this morning’s forum.

“By no means do we want to penalize schools for rigorous standards, and we don’t want to reward schools that hand out degrees indiscriminately,” said Mark Schneider, a co-author and vice president for new education initiatives at the American Institutes for Research. But “students enrolling should know what the graduation rates are,” he added.

Past reports have also laid out the wide range of graduation rates among colleges grouped by selectivity. In March 2007, The Chronicle reported that graduation rates at similarly selective colleges declined as the proportion of their low-income students increased. —Austin Wright