• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Program Grad Rates

And the particular complications for non-cohort programs.

July 18, 2019

“What’s the graduation rate for creative writing majors, and how does it compare to the college as a whole?”

I had to try to answer that question this week. It’s harder than it sounds. (I’m using “creative writing” because it did a program review this year. This post could apply to almost any non-cohort program.) And the issue wasn’t just that percentages can mislead when the raw numbers are low, although they can.

The point of the question was to see whether a given program has a dropout problem.

The headline graduation rate for the college as a whole is the IPEDS headline number: first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students in 150% or less of “normative” time. But creative writing majors don’t always fit that profile. (They’re not alone; fewer than ⅕ of our students fit that profile.) Many are part-time, and/or have previous college credit, and/or have previous degrees. Whittling down the number to the few that fit the IPEDS profile means going low enough as to make the comparison meaningless.

But that’s just the easy part.  

How would we define a graduation rate for a given major?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students change majors frequently. Some creative writing students start as “liberal education” majors (our unfortunate term for “liberal arts”); some start in business; some start as creative writing. Similarly, some who start in creative writing subsequently switch, and later graduate in other programs.  

Our Institutional Research office bases the numbers on the programs in which students started. The advantage of that is its relative simplicity. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t distinguish between programs that keep their students and programs that lose them to other programs. (It also creates a weird gap with our Nursing program. The program has prerequisites, so students can’t start in it; they start in something else, take some required courses, and then apply. By the time they get into the Nursing program, they aren’t “first-time” anymore.)  

I don’t mind that some students who start off in, say, business, change their minds and switch to, say, psychology. That doesn’t strike me as institutional or programmatic failure; if anything, it may be a sign of learning. Students don’t know what they don’t know; sometimes they discover that they don’t really want what they thought they wanted at the start. I thought I was pre-law for a while, until I spent a summer following lawyers around and realized it wasn’t for me. There’s no shame in that.  

The “meta-major” movement, in which students take a “sampler platter” course early on to see what appeals to them, strikes me as a long-overdue corrective to the assumption that every student knows exactly what they want from the moment of enrollment.  Most don’t. And even some who think they do, discover that they were wrong. That’s okay. Until they’re exposed to the reality of a given program, how would they know?

So far, the best answer I’ve heard -- hat-tip to Laura Longo for this -- is a “proportional” rate. That would compare the percentage of the entering Fall class in a given year that declares a given major to the percentage of graduates a few years later who graduated with that major.  If the percentage dropped, then presumably the graduation rate for the program was below average; if it climbed, then it was above average. It’s imperfect, given that cohorts mix, but it’s better than anything else I’ve seen. If nothing else, it might help us see where the biggest issues are.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonable way to calculate a program’s graduation rate when the program doesn’t have a clear cohort?


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