Education Department Signals New Direction on Graduation Rates

Community colleges and some minority-serving institutions stand to gain from a decision by the Obama administration to broaden the definition of college success to include part-time and transfer students who may take longer – and more circuitous routes – to earn a degree.

The announcement would require colleges and universities to include part-time and transfer students when measuring graduation rates, a key factor in national studies of post-secondary institutions and their value. Currently, graduation rates are based only on the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who complete their programs.

Two-year colleges and four-year institutions serving urban students are among those who long have argued that the current indicator undervalues their work, leaving them with unfairly low success rates.

“We need to get credit for our transfer students,” said Deborah Douglas, university spokeswoman at Chicago State University, a predominantly Black institution that serves many urban youth who previously attended other colleges and universities.

First-time, full-time freshmen represent only 8 percent of the student body at Chicago State, where the average student age is 29 and many work part or full time.

“The majority of our incoming students are not reflected in the metrics the government has been collecting for decades,” she told Diverse.

While Chicago State’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2011 was 21 percent – an improvement over past years – the graduation rate for transfer students is above 50 percent each year, she said.

“CSU is well known in the Chicago area as an institution that serves transfer students,” Douglas added. “But the government figure doesn’t match the reality of what’s going on here.”

In calling for changes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the new approach will better reflect reality.

“Not all students take a linear path in their pursuit of higher education,” Duncan said. “Many students work full-time and are balancing family obligations while also attending school. These new outcome measures will accurately demonstrate how postsecondary schools are preparing students for success in different ways.”

The department made the announcement in an Action Plan for Improving Measures of Postsecondary Success, which followed the work of a 15-member committee appointed by Duncan in June 2010 to hold public meetings and make recommendations.

“The department’s willingness to explore this is a positive outcome,” said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research at the American Association of Community Colleges. Phillippe told Diverse that the current framework “misrepresents” the experience of many students since it does not factor in the success of part-time students and those who transfer to other institutions.

Phillippe said it still may be “three or four years” until colleges and universities begin to include such students in graduation data, since the rule must wind its way through federal data review panels. It also will take additional planning to better document what happens to part-time students and transfer students after they leave a community college.

Last fall, AACC welcomed the committee’s review of the graduation issue and said that broader metrics would transform the picture of U.S. community colleges.

For example, including transfer students alone would increase the community college completion rate from the current 22 percent to 40 percent, the association said.

“We have long been concerned with federal graduation rate calculations,” Phillippe said.

The move would affect about 7,000 colleges and universities that are eligible for federal student aid programs and report graduation rates through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

In its action plan, the department also detailed other activities to help colleges and states expand their ability to collect quality data. One strategy is to continue providing incentives for states to strengthen data collection through longitudinal data systems grants.

The action plan is available at www.ed.gov/edblogs/ous/initiatives.