4 reasons to not judge colleges too much by graduation rates

I graduated from college in 2007. The oldest of my two sisters graduated from high school that summer, too, and she started college just a few months later.

Six years after that, fewer than 40 percent of her freshman class peers nationwide had finished college.

We tend to think of college as a four year endeavor. We think of tuition as the price of one-fourth of a college degree. But for more than half of students who start college in America, that is simply not the case.

And while graduating only 39.4 percent of a freshman cohort sounds bad, it is a lot better than the 33.7 percent national average among the class that started in 1996.

Graduation rates are among the most common measurements bandied about as politicians and others discuss how to evaluate a college. They would have played a role in the Obama administration’s scrapped plan to create a federal ranking system for colleges that would have linked federal funding to performance.

The government dropped that plan, replacing it with a new college scorecard that provides data without a ranking. But the topic of rating colleges will not go away—it shouldn’t, in fact. We need to have a healthy discussion about what we expect out of colleges and universities, especially what we expect out of the public and private investment in higher education.

But as we discuss how to measure the effectiveness of higher education, we have to remember that numbers sometimes tell incomplete and even inaccurate stories. This is the case for graduation rates. Here are a few reasons why they should be taken with a grain of salt.

1. Transfers are not dropouts

The graduation rate measurements only indicate how many people who started at a college in a particular year graduated from that same college within six years. Students who transfer away impact the college’s graduation rate the same as students who fail or quit.

But there may be any number of reasons for a student to not graduate from the college where he or she attended for the first semester: Maybe the student realizes that he shouldn’t have chosen the college mom and dad pushed for, or he improves his GPA enough to gain admission to his first-choice college. Maybe she decides she wants to be closer to home or go to a college with a major in her new academic interest. Perhaps he chooses to follow his high school sweetheart to another school.

Judging colleges on their six-year graduation rates and making no exceptions for transfers amounts to judging a college for the ability of 18 and 19-year-olds to make the best decision on the first try. Combined with high stakes in the form of a federal ranking that determines funding, this provides negative incentives to colleges. For example, a school could make transferring an almost insurmountable administrative nightmare. Or they could all agree to stop accepting credits from other colleges. These practices might reduce transfers and convince more students to tough it out at their original colleges, but it would not serve students better.

2. What gets excluded?

When schools report their six-year graduation rates, they are allowed to subtract students whose graduations were postponed or prevented by the following:

  1. Death
  2. Military service
  3. Official church missions

What’s missing from that list?

Well, for one, there’s prison time. I hope that no college would help shield their students from law enforcement out of a fear of a lower graduation rate, but it is possible, technically.

There are other categories of students who might not graduate in six years but for reasons that should not reflect negatively on the college. Some examples include:

  • Those whose medical conditions, disabilities, or family situations prevent them from being able to attend full-time
  • Those who leave school to, I don’t know, start a multi-billion dollar corporation
  • Those who can’t make up their minds and change majors multiple times

All of these represent people who may legitimately take longer than four years to graduate. The investment in their education may still be worthwhile. Should colleges be punished for serving these students?

Which leads me to my next point…

3. Emphasis on the number discourages colleges from serving those who can’t make the numbers

One of the easiest ways to increase your graduation rate is to accept fewer students who might not graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

You might not be able to predict who will go to prison, who may develop medical problems that would postpone graduation, or who will start megacorporations, but there are some factors that prevent timely graduation.

Those include income and race.

Poorer students and minority students (too often one and the same) statistically take longer to graduate. Although outright discrimination based on these factors may be illegal, colleges could fine-tune their admissions requirements and financial aid structures to make it more difficult for these students to attend, thus decreasing the likelihood that they will negatively impact the college’s graduate rate.

Considering the role a college education plays in economic and social mobility, we would be unwise to do anything that encourages schools to limit these students’ opportunities.

4. Better graduation rates cost more

Almost everything you can do to decrease the number of students leaving a particular college costs money and energy.

You have to keep the dorms in top-notch condition, and when your closest competitors improve their student centers, you must overhaul yours, too.

You must provide activities that keep students interested and connected.

You have to walk students through any trial or challenge that comes their way, from not making enough friends to feeling depressed around the holidays.

You double and triple your efforts in tutoring in hopes of helping more students make the grade.

All of these can get expensive.

At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves, how much are we willing to spend to ensure that one extra student does not  transfer/drop out/flunk out/move slowly and change majors multiple times? Measuring colleges based on graduation rates provides an incentive to spend more, which will only add more and more to the cost of college.

Graduation rates are still relevant and are important to discuss. But the problems presented here should remind us to not place too much emphasis on them.

However, these problems are not without solutions. In a later post, I’ll write about just a few ideas that I, and other people, have devised for measuring colleges’ performance.