Are Graduation and Retention Rates the Right Measures?

In the ongoing conversation about institutional quality, I continuously see references to retention and graduation rates as “the” — or at least “a” — key indicator of institutional quality. But what if we have it all wrong? What if measuring graduation and retention rates as evidence of institutional quality is like taking a person’s temperature to evaluate the efficacy or effectiveness (these are experimentally different measures) of his blood pressure medication?

While it may be true that, at the margins, some institutions are more successful at retaining and graduating disadvantaged students than others, and we should certainly study those institutions to find out what they do “right,” in general, retention and graduation rates correlate more closely to student socioeconomic status and family situation than they do to institutional type, sector, or quality. Even at the highest-ranked institutions where drop-out rates are low in general, disadvantaged students are far more likely to leave without a degree than are their more advantaged peers.

Schools that serve a large number of wealthy students can win the numbers game when graduation and retention rates are reported as averages among the entire student body. Conversely, schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students have nowhere to hide.

No matter how rigorous the curriculum, dedicated the faculty, or plentiful the academic support services, a student who is working many hours or juggling demanding family obligations while attending school may simply lack the time to take advantage of the services offered or even to complete the work assigned. Learning is not a spectator sport, and no college administrator — no matter how insightful, dedicated or motivated — can create more time in the day of an overcommitted student. If the student does not have time to participate in learning, he or she is unlikely to be successful.

Perhaps the real reason that retention and graduation rates are so low among disadvantaged students is that the Federal financial-aid system is based on the principle of giving a little bit of money to a lot of students rather than giving enough money to any students. There are real political advantages associated with this strategy.

In pharmacology, scientific studies carefully determine the effective dose of a drug — one that produces a therapeutic response in 50 percent of the people taking it. Perhaps it is time to coduct a scientific study to determine just how much aid is required to produce a 50-percent cohort graduation rate among each incoming class of Pell recipients. It may be hard — even impossible — to provide funding at a level that makes a difference, but at least we could be honest about the real cause for the low graduation and retention rates achieved by the neediest students. We might also, then, be able to have an honest dialogue about institutional quality and assessment — one that doesn’t make underdogs out of the very institutions working hardest to provide a glimmer of hope to the neediest of students.


(Brainstorm illustration incorporating photos by Flickr users ausiegall and amer3000)

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