Graduation Rates: Flawed as a Measure of Colleges, but Still Useful

It’s commencement season on college campuses, the time when graduating students see their years of effort culminate in a victory: getting the degree. That road to commencement was longer for some students than for others, though, and eventually those varying journeys will be reflected in the institution’s graduation rate.

The value of that number has been debated almost from the day it was first calculated in the mid-1990s. The flaws of the official government rate are well known: It counts only full-time, first-time students who enroll in the fall, excluding those who transfer out of the institution or transfer in and eventually graduate.

But even if you ignore those flaws, questions remain about whether graduation rates should be used to judge the quality of an institution and, more important, considered by prospective students when they select a college. Despite these questions, a host of recently released consumer tools, including President Obama’s College Scorecard, are using graduation rates in just that way to help students weigh their college decision. What’s more, in a Pew Research Center survey of college presidents conducted with The Chronicle in 2011, campus leaders said graduation rates were the most effective indicator for the public to assess a college’s quality.

As the graduation rate is used more often as a proxy for quality, the debate over its effectiveness becomes more intense. Some college officials maintain that graduation rates are a poor predictor of student success because they don’t measure an individual student’s chance of success. In other words, we can’t send the same exact student to different colleges at the same time, so we have no idea if a student who ends up dropping out of a college with a low graduation rate wouldn’t have followed the same path at an institution with a high graduation rate.

In reporting my book on the future of higher ed over the past year and a half, I met many students who dropped out of college. That led me to keep returning to this question: Does the student make the institution or does the institution make the student?

It’s both, I learned, although depending on your measure of success, one of them is more important than the other. If graduating with a degree is the ultimate measure of success—and for most students it is—then getting the right match between a prospective student and a college is what matters most. That’s the foundation of the undermatching research by former Princeton president, William Bowen, and others. Bowen maintains that institutions are the more important player in that match because more-selective institutions do a better job at graduating all types of students, even those the admissions office may have worried about admitting in the first place.

Going to a college with a high graduation rate doesn’t guarantee that the student will get a degree, of course, but the so-called “peer effects” of being around other students who want to finish college make a significant difference. “There is evidence that schools with high graduation rates have a culture that encourages actually graduating,” says Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and former U.S. commissioner of education statistics.

Vincent Tinto, a leading expert on the subject and author of Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action (University of Chicago Press), agrees that graduation rates speak to no one individual. Still, graduation rates are not all about the academic strength of students a college enrolls—as critics sometimes argue—because even institutions with similar selectivity in admissions have substantial differences in how well they graduate students.

The problem as he sees it is that in the current system individuals are unable to obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about the likelihood that someone like them might graduate from an institution they are considering.

He would like to see institutions publish more data on graduation rates by type of student. How well does the college graduate those with Pell Grants or who need remedial help? What are the graduation rates by major, or of students on Work-Study grants? “If institutions can’t tell you that information, then that is indicative that they are not focused on student success,” says Tinto, professor emeritus at Syracuse University.

There is no question the government needs to improve how it measures the graduation rate to capture more students, such as those who transfer colleges. That is why we need a national unit-record system that tracks students who are increasingly swirling through higher education. But even with the flaws in how it’s currently measured, a college’s graduation rate should play a role in the college-search process. As Tinto says “in the absence of any other data, it is only logical that a student would use college graduation rates as a way of judging an institution.  What else would they do?”

As just one measure of many, using the graduation rate to evaluate colleges is as useful as judging a car by its safety ratings. Sure, you don’t know if buying a specific car will keep you from having an accident, but at least you reduce the probability that you will be seriously hurt if you purchase a car with a higher safety rating. The same is true with colleges that do a good job in graduating their students.

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