Overhauling the Graduation-Rate Calculus: Now the Hard Part Begins

April 12, 2012

The Education Department's announcement on Wednesday that it would soon include part-time and transfer students in its graduation-rate tallies drew cheers from critics who had called for a calculus that more accurately counted who graduates from the nation's colleges and universities. But the announcement also raised a big question: How exactly will those transfers and part-timers be counted?

This week's news was especially welcome among community colleges, which have long wanted transfer students to be included in national college-completion figures. Under the current system—in which only full-time, first-time degree- or certificate-seeking students are counted if they complete their programs—community colleges often appear to be laggards in graduating their students. That's in part because a large proportion of those students attend part time and in part because hundreds of thousands of students every year transfer from a community college to a four-year institution. In so doing, the colleges are fulfilling one of their missions. But they don't get credit for it.

Now begins the arduous task of figuring out exactly how to capture those transfer and part-time students in the data-collection process. At issue is defining the terms "part-time student" and "transfer student." How many credits will students have to earn to be counted as part-time students? Will transfer students include those who earned an associate degree or just those who "substantially prepared" for transfer.

The department will also have to sort out how long those students will be tracked in order to determine whether they graduate. Will it be 150 percent of the conventional time to graduation (six years) or perhaps 200 percent of the time (eight years)?

Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the key "lies in the quality of institutional records and databases, and whether the registrars and institutional research can straighten out some of the sloppiness that has accumulated below the surface of the currently simplistic graduation-rate survey reporting."

"Making sure everybody can do it the same way, and with consistent results," he says, "will take a few years."

The Committee on Measures of Student Success has provided the department with some guidance. The advisory committee, which consists of 15 college officials, scholars, and policy experts, was charged last year with helping two-year colleges comply with a new federal requirement that degree-granting institutions report their completion or graduation rates, and also state whether they had alternative ways of measuring student success.

The reporting requirement was included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which also called for the creation of the advisory committee. The committee issued its final report in December, and the Education Department adopted most of its recommendations, including the addition of part-time and transfer students to calculation of national graduation rates.

A Difficult Road

The committee suggested that the department convene panels made up of technical experts to clarify how to proceed with the recommendations. Collecting the student-transfer data from institutions will be one hurdle to overcome.

Not all community colleges have a good sense of what happens to their students once they leave. A state-based data system could track a student who transferred from a two-year college to a public, four-year institution in the same state but not if that student went out of state or decided to enroll in a for-profit college, says Thomas R. Bailey, the committee's chair and director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Figuring out details like that is important because so many students transfer from one institution to another. In fact, more than a quarter of all transfers cross state lines, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

One of the committee's recommendations that the Education Department chose not to adopt was to create a national student unit-record system. Under such a system, each student's academic progress would be tracked individually, enabling much more accurate graduation-rate calculations and avoiding many of the problems associated with the current institution-based system. Largely on account of concerns about student privacy, Congress has prohibited the federal government from establishing such a system.

Mr. Bailey calls the exclusion of a unit-record system in higher education a missed opportunity. "If we really want to know what is happening with our students," he says, "we need to track them across institutions in a longitudinal way."