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To many students, parents, taxpayers and politicians, a key way to measure colleges' success is their graduation rates. A new book, The College Completion Glass -- Half-Full or Half-Empty? (Rowman and Littlefield), challenges much of the way college completion is talked about. The book argues that other measures matter as well, and that completion rates need context to be understood.

The author is Tiffany Beth Mfume, assistant vice president for student success and retention at Morgan State University. She responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Many discussions of colleges' performance focus on graduation rates. You suggest that there are problems with these rates. What are the problems?

A: I continue to challenge federal guidelines for retention and graduation rates. Unlike the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks enrollment and awarded degrees to explore the six-year outcomes of a cohort of first-time-in-college degree-seeking students to include student completion anywhere, persistence anywhere (not just at the starting institution), college outcomes broken out by student age at first entry, and enrollment status in all terms of enrollment (not just the first term), the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) excludes transfer students, mature students, part-time students and students who begin college in terms other than fall. [Editor's note: The book was written before some recent changes in federal data collection methodologies.] One major problem with the IPEDS graduation rate is that transfer students count against the cohort graduation rate at the institution of origin, and the new institution does not receive credit for their graduation, either.

Q: Many criticize the federal methodology for graduation rates. Could there be a better way to calculate federal rates?

A: One alternative to the federal methodology is the Student Achievement Measure (SAM), an improved way to report undergraduate student progress and completion by including a greater proportion of students as well as tracking students who enroll in multiple higher education institutions. The SAM tracks student movement across postsecondary institutions to provide a more complete picture of undergraduate student progress and completion within the higher education system. Counting and tracking the success of all students, traditional first-time, full-time freshmen, as well as nontraditional, mature, part-time and transfer students across both two-year and four-year institutions for four years, six years, eight years and 10 years can add tremendous value and better understanding of postsecondary education.

Q: Is Morgan State's rate, (per College Scorecard) a good way to evaluate Morgan State? How do graduation rates (as calculated today) hurt minority-serving institutions such as Morgan State?

A: The College Scorecard lists Morgan's 2010 freshman cohort six-year graduation rate as 35 percent in 2016. Our IPEDS 2011 freshman cohort six-year graduation rate was 38 percent in 2017, and our IPEDS 2012 freshman cohort six-year graduation rate was 39 percent in 2018. Morgan State University's current 2013 freshman cohort six-year graduation rate is 43 percent for 2019.

Unfortunately, most public rating and/or ranking databases run one to three years behind current institutional data, which is yet another flaw of the federal tracking system. Since minority-serving institutions (MSIs) are likely to enroll students who have lower probabilities for completion, including minority students, low-income students, first-generation students and academically underprepared students, federal graduation rate methodology undermines student success and disadvantages MSIs and colleges that serve underserved populations. When SAT scores and/or Pell funding (for low-income students) are controlled for, retention and graduation rates for MSIs are generally higher than expected.

At Morgan State University, a public historically black university with a total population of 7,800 students, more than 55 percent of undergraduate students are eligible to receive Pell Grants. The expected six-year graduation rate for low-income (Pell-eligible) African American students is approximately 30 percent; Morgan's graduation rates … in context, represent an actual overperformance. In spite of postsecondary degree-attainment gaps by race and ethnicity, MSIs and HBCUs often overperform when predicted graduation rates are calculated using regression analysis to control for household income, first-generation status and/or standardized test scores.

Q: Your book discusses a "value added" approach. Can you explain that concept?

A: Concerns about student loan debt, the employment rate of college graduates and the viability of institutions of higher learning leave many people asking, “Is a college degree really worth it?” My book focuses on best practices for increasing retention and graduation rates from the “value added” perspective and encourages colleges and universities not to rely on deficit modeling for college completion efforts.

While it is tempting to dwell on the deficits of students, whether they are financial deficits or academic deficits, the institutions making the greatest strides in student success always are endeavoring to explore new strategies, expand existing initiatives and engage with colleagues and leaders in the field of higher education. The benefits of earning a college degree are undeniable; college graduates are less likely to be unemployed, more likely to have health benefits and more likely to own a home. College graduates earn more money, live healthier lifestyles, have longer life expectancy, report greater satisfaction levels and claim higher quality of life. The "value added" approach focuses on college education as the most proven, invaluable lifetime investment and the most reliable path to upward mobility and socioeconomic class reassignment.

Q: You discuss problems with the "deficit model" -- would you elaborate on that?

A: I often have observed higher education professionals being critical of ourselves when it comes to retention and graduation rates. I attend about a dozen conferences and convenings per year, and it is not uncommon to explore deficit-style themes in reference to what is missing in higher education, what institutions are not doing well in higher education and what changes need to be made to “save” higher education.

Of course, higher education professionals can do better by improving systems, well educating students and preparing college graduates who are ready to take on the challenges of graduate school, career, entrepreneurship, volunteerism and civic engagement. However, educators and critics of postsecondary education often dwell on the half-empty portion instead of the half-full portion of the college completion glass. More than half of all students at four-year postsecondary institutions actually graduate according to the stringent federal definition of college graduation. I believe that a focus on what we’ve done well for the half of students who do finish on time can inform our efforts to enhance student success and increase college completion rates for the other half.

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