When college presidents and other higher education leaders talk about federal policy these days, the most common theme is dismay at proposed new regulations from the Department of Education. But a close second is the inadequacy of data from the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for evaluating anything.
This is a problem that has vexed us for years, and it's time for us to do something about it.
Every sector is affected. Colleges with many students transferring out to other colleges complain that even when those men and women graduate from the second institution, they still count as failures for their first college.
Universities with large numbers of entering transfer students know that even when they graduate they will not count as successes anywhere in IPEDS accounting. Juniors entering with degrees from community colleges will not help the statistics of their new university when they receive a B.A. or B.S.
Colleges with large percentages of part-time and commuter students know that they normally take longer than six years to graduate. Everyone reminds each other that a large percentage of Americans graduating from college now have credits from more than one institution, often more than two institutions. Many people taking courses at community colleges do not intend to complete degree programs.
Yet six-year graduation rates from the first point of entry are the only figures we seem to have for evaluating completion success. IPEDS data are not useful for management purposes, but they can be outright dangerous for policy making, particularly if leading to conclusions that whole segments of our country can be written off as not college-worthy. The figures are least reliable for low-income populations who do have to “stop out” some semesters, who are more likely to attend part time, more likely to need time for pre-college courses because of weak high schools, more likely to transfer, and more at risk.
So, rather than leaving this for the U.S. Department of Education to fix, I am challenging colleagues in higher education to design an alternative system that is more valid, reliable, and useful.
My institution, Heritage University, in the Yakima Valley of Washington, is one of the institutions fully committed to creating opportunities for a region’s underserved, low-income, largely minority and almost entirely first-generation-college population that, by and large, has not been well-prepared by local high schools. Until my arrival last summer, Heritage’s founding and only president, Kathleen Ross, had for 28 years been building an inspirational learning environment with thousands of success stories from that population. Many of those graduates are not only productive citizens but also leaders in the Pacific Northwest, reaching goals no one would have imagined possible for them before they came to Heritage.
Most Heritage students, to be sure, do need pre-college developmental work; almost all have to hold jobs; many have to “stop out” for a semester from time to time. Some 70 percent are women, many of them single parents determined to raise their families up out of poverty. Graduation figures in the IPEDS data for those who entered at the start of the last decade look miserable at first glance, something like 18 percent in six years. A certain portion of that deficiency derives from Heritage having had in its early years an enrollment policy a bit too close to open enrollment for a college with high standards.
The history of Heritage has been, in effect, a search to understand which students can be remediated to do rigorous college work and which, despite a high school diploma and a respectable grade point average, lack the academic skills and work ethic to succeed. As a consequence Heritage, now with much time-tested data at its disposal, is advising a number of applicants in other directions; is developing stronger pre-college modules for those with ability and commitment to succeed; and is investing in robust advising to complement academic rigor.
One might hope that Rich Vedder, who in a recent Forbes blog post suggested Heritage might best be shut down for wasting Pell Grant dollars, would reconsider that conclusion and decide that Heritage is actually a very good Pell investment in America’s future.
For if he and others study the data more closely, they'll also learn that of those students who actually matriculated as full-fledged freshmen between 2003 and 2005 -- that is, students who had completed any necessary remedial work -- the 8-year graduation rate was 41 percent, not including those who transferred to another college. Of those who successfully became sophomores at Heritage, the graduation rate was 81 percent. Of those who became juniors, as well as those who transferred in as juniors from community colleges, the graduation rate was 81 percent. In each of those last three data sets, Heritage University compares quite favorably with other colleges that have comparable populations. Hundreds of other colleges, moreover, have good stories to tell if they can use metrics that are truer to and more relevant to actual performance than are the IPEDS data.
So Heritage is now developing a metric to assign to every entering student -- based on credits transferred, remediation needed, and planned full-time or part-time schedule -- a predictive graduation date, a benchmark against which success can be measured, with a factor also to account for those known to have transferred to another college.
This is the time, however, to challenge all of us in higher education -- the presidential associations, those who oversee accreditation, and other higher education organizations -- to come together to propose an alternative to IPEDS, or at least a parallel system, that colleges and universities themselves find useful for management and that policy makers can trust.
It must account for transfer patterns, for differential rates of progress among low-income populations, for developmental needs of students, and for the wide array of kinds of institutions in American higher education. It is complex but it is doable. It will give all of us a better system for measuring completion success rates.
John Bassett is president of Heritage University, in Yakima, Wash.
That special day in May has arrived. The students in their graduation robes assemble by the administration building or the stadium or the largest parking lot on campus. They mill around, excited that they’re about to leave the place where they spent the last four or more years, and anxious over the same state of affairs. A few administrators walk by in their regalia, the band or sound system starts up, and soon everyone will march.
So where are the faculty?
“Sorry,” a veteran professor from the English department told me the day before, “but I never show up for these things.” When I ask why not, he just shrugs. He’s taught there for over 25 years. A few other professors respond similarly. The point is, they’re not alone. I’ve taught at three different schools, and faculty attendance at commencement has always been dismal. This year, I was the only faculty member in my department to show up at graduation, and I find that -- let’s be kind and say “puzzling.” Why would you spend years helping your students and then refuse to attend the culmination of all that hard work?
Yet to ask that of most faculty seems to annoy them. They’re independent-minded and don’t like being told what to do, or even be questioned.
“Look, it’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of the administration here,” a colleague of mine tells me. “This is my way of flipping them off.” He’s not an evil guy, and this is his rationale for staying away from graduation, year after year.
“But you’re mainly hurting the students,” I reply. “When they’re ready to graduate and none of the faculty show up, what do you think that says to them?”
He shrugs, and the conversation ends there.
Another non-attending teacher puts her hands on her hips when I ask her. “The students don’t show up, so why should I?”
This observation is partly true, so I choose my words carefully. “How about for the students who do show up?”
Another shrug. That seems to be a popular response.
“Hey, I work for my students during the school year,” a colleague from a previous school once told me. I didn’t answer this point, mainly because I’d heard about his terrible teaching evaluations and recognized a self-serving argument when I heard one. “I’m too busy grading finals,” a history professor from the same school told me.
“It’s just too big,” says another faculty member. “I might show up to see the students I taught, but I don’t really feel a part of this...” he searches for the right word “...undertaking.”
In fact, many institutions have both commencement exercises and individual school convocation ceremonies and departmental parties to see off their graduates. But attendance isn’t great at those events, either, and anyway, that’s still not a compelling reason for staying away from graduation.
At one institution where I taught, any faculty who didn’t own their own gowns were obliged to pay for their own regalia, and that was the reigning reason for poor faculty attendance -- until the administration waived the fee, and faculty still stayed away.
At some schools, attendance at graduation is written into the faculty contracts. I gather this measure is necessary because otherwise, faculty representation would be pitiful. Why this should be so, I still can’t fathom. I didn’t enter this profession for big bucks or prestige -- if I had, I would’ve been misinformed -- but because I liked teaching and research. For all its pious platitudes, graduation still celebrates those aspects of academe.
It was many years ago, but I still recall the day I got my doctoral degree: an overcast afternoon that never quite rained. My department was, to put it charitably, ill-represented. My dissertation adviser arrived late and grumpy. I heard him telling another professor that the only reason he showed up was to hood someone -- “and I’m sorry I came because it looks like rain.” At my undergraduate commencement, a few of the faculty from my department came, but none stayed around afterward, though my father asked me to point out some of my teachers.
So I show up at graduation, part of a small cadre. “Hey, professor!” shout a couple of students who see me in my gown. I get a lot of handshakes and a few hugs. With a few, I discuss plans for after graduation, though a handful just want to chat. After the ceremony, some parents want to take pictures of the graduates alongside their professors, which is hard to do without faculty attending.
One student asks me point-blank, “Where are the other professors?” All I can do is shrug -- sympathetically. When it’s over, I pack up and leave the school, still a little emotional, though I’m usually not that type. I’m proud for the students. I’m also upset at my colleagues.
Professors instruct in all sorts of ways. This method is called setting a bad example.
David Galef is an English professor and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
Most of the action in American educational policy happens in the states. Their governments are primarily responsible for elementary and secondary education, and the vast majority of students in the United States attend public institutions that are also funded and governed primarily at the state level. So any efforts to improve the interaction between the public schools system and higher education, and to ease the transition of students from one to another to ensure their academic success, will live and die largely at the state level.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association plans to provide up to $7 million a year to member colleges whose athletes perform well in the classroom and another $3 million annually to help institutions improve the academic success of their athletes, association officials said Thursday.