Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently wrote a letter to the editor  of The Detroit News in defense of her higher education commission's proposal for a national “student unit record” system  to track all college entrants to produce a more accurate picture of degree completion. “Currently,” she said, “we can tell you anything about first-time, full time college students who have never transferred–about half of the nation’s undergraduates.” It took a long time to bring Education Department officials to a public acknowledgment of what its staff always knew: that the so-called “Congressional Methodology” of our national college graduation rate survey doesn’t pass the laugh test. If the Secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education  made one truly compelling recommendation, it was for a fuller and better accounting through student unit records.
But it was well known that the establishment of a national student unit record system was a non-starter in Congress due to false worries about privacy and data security. So one wonders why the department hasn’t simply proposed a serious revision of the process and formula for determining graduation rates. Having edited and analyzed most of the d-department’s postsecondary data sets, may I offer an honest and doable formula?
There are four bins of graduates in this formula, and they account for just about everyone the Secretary justly wants us to count. They count your daughter’s friends who start out as part-time students -- who are not counted now. They count your 31-year-old brother-in-law who starts in the winter term -- who is not counted now. They count active duty military whose first college courses are delivered by the University of Maryland’s University College at overseas locations -- who are not counted now. They count your nephew who transferred from Oklahoma State University to the University of Rhode Island when he became interested in marine biology -- and who is not counted now. And so forth. How do you do it, dear Congress, when you reauthorize the Higher Education Amendments this year?
First, define an “academic calendar year” as July1 through the following June 30, and use this as a reference period instead of the fall term only. Second, define the tracking cohort as all who enter a school (college, community college, or trade school) as first time students at any point during that period, and who enroll for 6 or more semester-equivalent credits in their first term (thus excluding incidental students).
Automatically, institutions would be tracking students who enter in winter and spring terms and those who enter part-time. Your brother-in-law, along with other non-traditional students, is now in the denominator along with your daughter. Ask our colleges to divide this group between dependent traditional age beginners (under age 24) and independent student beginners (age 24 and up), and to report their graduation rates separately. After all, your daughter and your brother-in-law live on different planets, in case you haven’t noticed. You now have two bins.
Third, establish another bin for all students who enter a school as formal transfers. The criteria for entering that bin are (a) a transcript from the sending institution and (b) a signed statement of transfer by the student (both of which are usually part of the application protocol). These criteria exclude the nomads who are just passing through town.
At the present moment, community colleges get credit for students who transfer, but the four-year colleges to which they transfer get no credit when these transfer students earn a bachelor’s degree, as 60 percent of traditional-age community college transfers do. At the present moment, 20 percent of the bachelor’s degree recipients who start in a four-year school earn the degree from a different four-year school. That we aren’t counting any of these transfers-in now is a travesty -- and makes it appear that the U.S. has a much lower attainment rate than, in fact, we do. All this hand-wringing about international comparisons that puts us on the short end of the stick just might take a different tone.
Fourth, ask our postsecondary institutions to report all students in each of the three bins who graduate at two intervals: for associate degree granting institutions, at 4 years and 6 years; for bachelor’s degree granting institutions at 6 years and 9 years. For institutions awarding less than associate degrees, a single two-year graduation rate will suffice. Transfers-in are more difficult, because they enter an institution with different amounts of credits, but we can put them all on the same reporting schedule as community colleges, i.e., 4 and 6 years.
These intervals will account for non-traditional students (including both active duty military and veterans) who move through the system more slowly due to part-time terms and stop-out periods, but ultimately give due credit to the students for persisting. These intervals will also present a more accurate picture of what institutions enrolling large numbers of non-traditional students, e.g. the University of Texas at Brownsville, DePaul University in Chicago, and hundreds of community colleges, actually do for a living.
Colleges, community colleges, and trade schools have all the information necessary to produce this more complete account of graduation rates now. They have no excuse not to provide it. With June 30 census dates for both establishing the tracking cohort and counting degrees awarded, the algorithms are easy to write, and data systems can produce the core reports within a maximum of two months. It's important to note that the tracking cohort report does not not replace the standard fall term enrollment report, the purposes of which are very different."
But there is one more step necessary to judge institutions' contribution to the academic attainment of the students who start out with them.
So, in rewriting the graduation rate formula in the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Amendments, Congress should also ask all institutions to make a good faith effort to find the students who left their school and enrolled elsewhere to determine whether these students, too, graduated. The National Student Clearinghouse will help in many of these cases, the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange will help in others, state higher education system offices will help in still others, and we might even get the interstate compacts (e.g. the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education) into the act. Require our postsecondary institutions to report the students they find in a fourth bin. They will not be taking credit for credentials, but will be acknowledged as contributing to student progress.
No, this is not as full an account as we would get under a student unit record system, but it would be darned close -- and all it takes is a rewriting of a bad formula.
After 27 years of research for the U.S. Department of Education, Clifford Adelman recently left to be a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. His last monograph for the department was The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College (2006).