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Do We Expect Fish to Climb Trees?

How we define institutional success matters.

January 19, 2022

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” —Origin unclear, but often attributed to Albert Einstein

The quote above periodically makes the social media meme rounds, accompanied by an editorial cartoon in which a teacher tells several animals, including an elephant, a fish, a seal and a monkey, that they will all be assessed based on their ability to climb a tree. The cartoon is subheaded “our education system” and, as is the wont for editorial cartoons, is tongue-in-cheek and poignant, simultaneously poking fun at and criticizing our nation’s obsession with standardized outcomes metrics in higher education.

Indeed, the federal graduation rate, the most commonly cited metric for postsecondary institutional success, is a prime example of how our fixation on standardized metrics drives an incentive structure that runs counter to the interests of today’s students. Importantly, it’s also a painful example of how those incentives can undermine our ability to live up to the democratic vision of education for which the United States is so lauded. Until we acknowledge the misalignment of incentives in our metrics and work to correct them, we create and perpetuate myriad, often unacknowledged, barriers for the very students we most need to engage: working adults.

The federal graduation rate was originally designed to track success for students entering directly following completion of high school who enrolled full-time at the institution they intended to graduate from. The definition of the cohort of students excludes those who start part-time or who transfer between institutions. Defining institutional—and student—success as receipt of a degree within a time period that assumes full-time (or near it), continuous enrollment at a single college or university creates incentives for institutions to cater to students with the financial privilege to dedicate years to college attendance as their single, primary endeavor. Of course, the flip side is also true: institutions are disincentivized to support students who can’t meet those expectations, including transfer students.

The collision of our national conversation around higher education attainment with declines in the population of high school graduates—the so-called demographic cliff—highlights the problem with the definition of the federal graduate rate sharply. Even the phrasing of a “demographic cliff,” which centers our enrollment expectations on so-called traditional or direct-entry students, denies the reality that we have a population of working adults available to meet the level of postsecondary credential attainment both our economy and our communities need—and the enrollment our campuses need. Instead of wringing our hands over declines in the population of high school graduates, we could instead center the realities of the lives of working adults. Doing so, however, requires that we rethink how we’ve defined both student and institutional success.

AACRAO, CHEA and ACE recently updated their Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit, highlighting that today’s students opt for increasingly nonlinear pathways to and through higher education. Indeed, expectations that today’s students can and will dedicate two to six years of their life primarily to seeking a degree, putting other aspects of their life on hold, are unrealistic. Working adults, even those who recently graduated from high school, wear many hats and have many responsibilities not only as students, but as employees, parents, community members, caregivers and more. Higher Learning Advocates reports that 24 percent of today’s students are raising children, 64 percent work while attending college and 40 percent enroll part-time. And that’s with a system that disincentivizes colleges and universities from prioritizing these students; imagine how many more working adults we could engage if we truly supported them as our missions call on us to do.

The exclusion of incoming transfer students from the federal graduation rate cohort deprioritizes transfer students for receiving institutions. When budgets are tight and choices must be made, institutions have little incentive to support populations of students that aren’t connected in meaningful ways to institutional success metrics. Despite many national efforts to encourage community college enrollment as a cost-saving measure, the federal graduation rate is designed neither to recognize nor reward transfer receptivity. While this is a direct disincentive for transfer-receiving institutions, it may also be why open-access institutions, especially community colleges that center transfer within their missions, are so often lambasted: if their success is measured based on the ability of their students to transfer, but there is no incentive for receiving schools to accept, enroll and support transfer students, community colleges bear the brunt. It’s another example of misaligned incentives within our metrics: community colleges with a transfer-focused mission are allegorical fish being asked to climb trees.

Unfortunately, any time the idea of changing the entrenched and established benchmark for student or institutional success to something other than the federal graduation rate comes up, it’s almost immediately discarded as impossible, unwise or both. Some opponents voice hesitancy to disincentivize degree completion by creating or using a metric that isn’t based on calendar time or doesn’t assume full-time, continuous credit accumulation. I would argue, however, that we are looking in the wrong place for who is incentivized: many of our students have been telling us for far too long that they can’t afford to enroll full-time or stay enrolled continuously. Even more, many of our would-be students have already written us off as unattainable, turning to other alternatives in the market or opting out of college entirely. The only incentive the federal graduation rate represents is one for institutions to continue to narrowly focus their programs, their recruitment and their retention efforts on students who are already financially or academically privileged, widening the opportunity gap instead of closing it.

Change is difficult and, even in turbulent times, when it is forced on us, it is often opposed by those who benefit from the status quo. Change management processes emphasize that fear of loss—loss of prestige, loss of privilege or loss of ease—is a frequently unspoken source of resistance to change. Unfortunately, nationally declining enrollments indicate that we—all of us, across higher education and within our communities, states and nation—are already losing: losing trust, losing potential students and losing opportunity. It is in our best interest to engage in an honest and realistic conversation about how we define student and institutional success given the realities we and our students face.

Given their role serving the majority of students in the nation, public higher education systems must be part of the solution. NASH recently launched the Power of Systems initiative, which aims to engage its 43 member systems in collaborative work to close equity gaps and promote economic and social mobility. A key strand of this work is to develop and implement new metrics related to credential and degree completion, social mobility, and student debt. The initial proposed completion metric, introduced at the Power of Systems convening in early December, aims to address limitations in the current federal graduation rate by capturing the complexity of student completion patterns across institutions as well as shorter-term credentials, such as certificates and certifications, that have value to industry and students. In the coming months, NASH will build on this developmental work and convene a national committee to enhance, finalize and pilot the new metrics. The goal is to develop metrics that will address institutional incentives to improve transfer receptivity and support today’s students.

We need better metrics, and we need a better collective understanding of the ways our blunt and outdated approaches to measuring institutional success harm today’s students and perpetuate the widening of equity gaps in opportunity and outcomes. Collectively, I know that we—higher education professionals across campus and across the country—can create both institutional and student success metrics that better reflect the value we bring to our communities and economies.

Teri Lyn Hinds, senior director of strategic initiatives, Equity 2030, Minnesota State


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