March 20, 2012

Completion Rates and the Uncounted

"Traditional" college students from a 1950s LIFE magazine

There was a time when almost every college student was a "traditional" student who finished high school, went to college full time, spent 2 or 4 years there and graduated.

There is plenty of data-collection on students and at the state and national levels there is a lot of interest in how many students are first-time, full-time students who enroll in the fall and get degrees from the places they started, in at most three years for an associate degree or six for a bachelor's.

The Chronicle of Higher Education even has a "College Completion Web Site" about these kinds of issues.

Who graduates from college, who doesn't and why are big questions for colleges these days.

Of the five million students who started college in the fall of 2009, 2.4 million of them didn't fit the federal definition, according to the U.S. Education Department. Almost 40% of all students in college then were enrolled part time, and many of them have probably since transferred. (According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a third of students who started college in the fall of 2006 transferred at least once in the five years that followed.)

And what about our adult students who earned some credit in the past and are now back to try to finish a degree? Add them in with the transfers, part-timers, and students who take a break and re-enroll either later or elsewhere.

According to a recent Chronicle article, even if they graduate, they don't count.
1.2 million aren’t counted. It’s impossible to know whether many freshmen graduated or not, because the U.S. government simply doesn’t track them. Part-time students are among those not counted.

2.1 million didn’t officially graduate. This number isn’t exact, because it includes both drop-outs and students who started at one college and graduated from another.

Anecdotally, the article notes that President Obama would have been an uncounted student. He started at Occidental College in 1979, but as a rising junior, transferred to Columbia University. He got his diploma in 1983, but by today's national standards (first used in the mid-90s), he wouldn't even be a graduate.
Same goes for the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney. He went to Stanford University in the fall of 1965, but he left the following summer on his Mormon mission, spending more than two years in France. Back in the United States, he enrolled at Brigham Young University in 1969 and graduated two years later. But he wouldn't count either.

Solutions? Every school is looking at ways to improve completion rates. And most schools are hoping for a different way of looking at student success. Our own PCCC President, Dr. Steve Rose, likes to comment at graduation that a student who working full time, running a family and taking classes for 6 years to complete their A.S. degree IS a success story, despite what the data may say.

Sometimes the possible solutions that digging deeper into the data suggests are not what you might expect.
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system used to allow students to apply for enrollment until the Friday before classes began. But then administrators at one college looked at what happened to those students and discovered a pattern: Students who enrolled closer to the start of the semester didn't do as well as those who had signed up earlier. As a result of that finding, the college required new students to apply at least 10 days before the start of the semester, and similar efforts are being studied at other institutions in the statewide system.

Further Reading

Do College-Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?

The Rise and Fall of the Graduation Rate

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