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Higher Education Leaders Urged to Improve Data Collection for College Completion Efforts

Higher education leaders should use historical data to gauge graduation rates among diverse student groups for whom graduation is less likely so they can make institutional improvements that help those students defy the odds.

That’s one of the key recommendations made by the lead researcher of a new report being released today by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institution, or HERI, that urges college and university administrators to reassess how they go about the business of getting their students to earn a bachelor’s degree in four to six years.

“Once you really have an understanding of how well you’re doing, that’s when you can have a real-world conversation about what needs to be done,” said Dr. Linda DeAngelo, CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) assistant director at HERI, and lead author of the report “Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions.”

Among other things, the report urges institutions to create or use a “degree completion calculator,” such as one that HERI designed, to determine a predicted graduation rate for a given group. Once the predicted graduation rate is determined, DeAngelo said, the objective should be to achieve higher graduation rates for those groups with graduation rates that are predicted to be relatively low.

DeAngelo said while it is easy to blame tough socioeconomic conditions or the K-12 system for academic non-preparedness that leads to low graduation rates, the challenge is to help students from diverse groups succeed irrespective of the lack of financial resources or a quality K-12 experience. The assistance can come through the formation of well-focused study groups to greater financial assistance to help students avoid taking out huge student loans during their first year, which she says has also been shown to negatively impact graduation rates.

“The fact of the matter is these students arrive at our door,” DeAngelo said. “We have a responsibility to work with them and create an environment that is conducive for them to succeed.”

She said the key question leaders must ask is: “Who are the students that we’re serving, and what are we dong to have those students be effective?”

DeAngelo made her remarks Monday during a phone interview with Diverse concerning the findings of the “Completing College” report.

In many ways, the report’s findings of the graduation gaps that exist among various racial and ethnic groups are not new or surprising.

The report states, for instance, that Asian American and White students have the highest rate of four-year degree completion — 44.9 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively — whereas the rates for Hispanic, African-American, and American Indian students are considerably lower, at 25.8, 21 and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“In fact,” the report states, “Asian American and White students are twice as likely as African-American students, and almost three times as likely as American Indian students to earn a degree in four years.”

However, the report seeks to take a more nuanced look at the issue of degree completion, examining rates by things such as status of being a first-generation college student, the type of institution being attended — public vs. private — and a host of other factors that range from an individual student’s self-rated “drive to achieve,” to whether a student plans to work full-time while in college.

Being a student who plans to transfer is a negative risk factor for non-graduation, the report states. So is repeated tardiness to class during the senior year in high school or planning to work full-time while in college.

“To improve graduation rates, institutions should find ways to better accommodate working students, assisting with aid that reduces work hours while encouraging a full course load, provide counseling concerning transfer inclinations, and facilitate behaviors known to foster academic success,” the report states.

The report notes that HBCUs seem to do a better job of defying the odds for African-American students.

In a chart that shows the difference between predicted and actual graduation rates for African-American students, the report shows that HBCUs’ actual four-, five- and six-year graduation rates are significantly higher than their predicted graduation rates at all other institutions. For instance, the predicted degree attainment rate within four years for African-American students at HBCUs is 14.9 percent, but the actual attainment rate is 20.2 percent, versus the rates being 17.3 and 21.7 percent at all other institutions, respectively.

DeAngelo said the fact that higher than predicted percentages of African-Americans graduate from HBCUs — generally known for creating a more supportive environment for African-American students — shows that things can be done at the institutional level to improve graduation rates.

“The fact of the matter is all people at institutions are responsible for the atmosphere at the institution,” DeAngelo said. “We all need to take responsibility for the environment at our college.”

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