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Perspectives: For Graduation Rates, Time to Carve a New Yardstick

In debates about accountability in higher education, few data points are as frequently misused as graduation rates. Graduation rates measure attendance time, not outcomes, predicated upon a narrow cohort of “traditional” students (fewer than 25 percent of today’s undergraduates) who start as full-time, first-time freshmen and graduate within six years at the same institution. Aside from traditional transfer students who are unfairly characterized as “dropouts”(even if they complete degrees on the same timetable elsewhere), this statistical blind spot is also biased against part-time older students, many women and students of color, who are more likely to have the personal and financial challenges that accompany extended time to graduation. Millions of such students do complete their degrees, albeit on a “non-traditional” timetable and following a more circuitous collegiate pathway.

I’m totally committed to the success of Trinity University students, including completion of their degrees in a timely way. But nearly two decades of experience with thousands of amazing women has taught me that time-to-completion is often the least useful indicator of true academic success.

Consider Verna, a composite of many Trinity students. Verna juggles work, family and studies as she moves toward completion of her bachelor’s degree. Having started at another college at age 19, only to stop to raise three children and work full time, she was 37 when she enrolled at Trinity. She’s determined to complete her degree with the class of 2007, before she turns 45.  When she walks across the stage next May, Verna will have taken 26 years to earn a bachelor’s degree. No one will be prouder on Commencement Day than Verna, her family and her employer — and the Trinity faculty and advisors who supported her.

Sadly, Verna will never exist in the calculation of graduation rates at Trinity, because she was not a “first-time, full-time” freshman when she started here. She will be, forever, some other institution’s “dropout.” 

Unfortunately, graduation rates have become surrogates for institutional quality, factoring significantly in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. While graduation rates are agnostic about learning, they reveal much about the homogeneity of a given group of students. As Robert Zemsky points out in Remaking The American University:  Market-Smart and Mission-Centered, economically wealthier families with higher parental educational rates will seek out institutions with high graduation rates, assuming that those rates mean academic quality. The continuing critical mass of high-achieving, high-income students keeps the graduation rate high.

Adult students, low-income students and part-time students have other needs, such as affordability, accessibility, and support services, and they flock to colleges that serve them well. But these students often take longer than the hallowed “150 percent time-to-completion,” resulting in lower graduation rates, hence, lower rankings for those institutions who serve such students well. Traditional yardsticks have no tick marks for real educational outcomes: improvements in writing and critical reading skills, quantitative competence and the development of academic and professional self-confidence.

“I never knew how to speak up in a staff meeting before,” a student once told me, reflecting on her Trinity experience, “and now I’ve become a group leader.” U.S. News has no category for how well a university improves the self-esteem and productivity of a mid-level government employee.

Such students are invisible to the lawmakers who opine on “drop-out rates” while romancing their own traditional college days. They ignore the fact that nearly 75 percent of today’s undergraduates are “nontraditional.”  

Most of Trinity’s undergraduates are “nontraditional” — even those who are between 18 and 22 years old. Largely self-supporting, they work substantial hours, often caring for children and elder parents. Sixty-five percent are Black, 15 percent are Latina. About 95 percent receive significant amounts of financial aid. For those who returned to school in their 30s and 40s, the choice to resume their studies arose from an overwhelming desire to succeed intellectually and professionally. These women are not “dropouts.”

If these students do not graduate in four, five or six years, it’s not because they are deficient, or because Trinity has failed them. Rather, life happens — spouses get ill or leave, babies come along, parents need help, jobs change. I think of Gwen, who raised seven children during the 13 years she took to earn a Trinity baccalaureate. Just this past spring, she proudly walked across the stage with her master’s degree. Gwen is a great success story, but like Verna and millions of others, she is invisible to the policy makers who want students to go through college the way they did, back in the days when higher education in the United States was far less accessible, far more aristocratic, far less conscious of its responsibility as a gateway to economic opportunity.

The “150 percent time-to-completion” standard is an artificial yardstick rooted in traditionalism. It’s time to break that outmoded yardstick and develop new outcomes-based measures of success for all graduates — including those millions of older women and students of color who are currently “lost” in the data because life intervened on the way to graduation day.

— Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity University in Washington, D.C.

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“Time to carve a new yardstick”
While I concur with President McGuire’s compelling perspective on carving a new yardstick on graduation rates that is more inclusive and reflective of the adult, low-income, and part-time students, there is one sentence in this article that is most salient to the issue she raises and seems to be a call for action.  McGuire states: “Sadly, Verna will never exist in the calculation of graduation rates at Trinity, because she was not a ‘first-time, full-time’ freshman when she started here.”  In recognizing the long history of excellent work that Trinity has done for the very students she characterizes and the need to provide such data to both internal and external entities, it seems reasonable to expect that sustainable efforts could be mounted to account for, present, and publicize institutional data that account for such students in all institutions that support and serve them.  This has the potential to significantly strengthen the case for what is often unheralded work by such institutions

-Tom T. Wolfe, Jr.

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