As president of University of Phoenix, I am instinctively guided to support the principles of greater access to, and better analysis of, data and information. That holds particularly true in the case of data that can help prospective students make informed choices about higher education.
So the White House’s newly released College Scorecard -- and its attendant torrent of new data on colleges -- should be a welcome move. It purports to contain a variety of information that assesses institutions on important metrics, including graduation rates and the income of graduates.
It is no secret, however, that the Scorecard has attracted widespread criticism, not least from my colleagues at large public universities, whose concerns I share regarding broader methodological flaws in it -- particularly the failure to include data on students who did not receive Title IV funds (data currently unavailable to the department under federal law). And even the data about Title IV recipients presents major challenges. They paint a skewed view of graduation rates that I believe does a particular disservice to students and prospective working adult learners -- the very people this tool should help.
Just taking University of Phoenix as an example, there is much for which my university can be proud. The data released includes findings ranking it sixth in the nation amongst large, private institutions (more than 15,000 students) in terms of the income of its graduates (and 24th among all large institutions, public and private). This adds to our institution’s latest draft three-year cohort default rate of 13.6, which is comparable to the national average.
But consider the methodology behind the graduation rates that the Scorecard cites -- arguably the most problematic flaw underlying it. For years now the U.S. Department of Education has relied on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rates, which reflect only first-time, full-time undergraduate students. By any measure, the student population of America is more diverse than those who attend college full-time and complete it in a single shot. At the University of Phoenix, 60 percent of students in 2014 were first generation, and 76 percent were working -- 67 percent with dependents. These are the type of students labeled “nontraditional” by a Department of Education that has often talked of empowering them.
Yet for the purposes of the department’s graduation rates, these nontraditional students are effectively invisible, uncounted. In 2014, University of Phoenix’s institutional graduation rate for students with bachelor’s degrees was 42 percent. The department’s new Scorecard puts that figure at 20 percent. Our institutional rates demonstrate a higher rate of student success while IPEDS provides an incomplete picture of the university’s performance. In 2014, only 9.3 percent of my university’s students were first-time, full-time students as defined by IPEDS.
These graduation data would be troubling enough were it not for the fact that they are misinforming the same students that the Department of Education claims to be helping. For our graduates, the refusal to accurately calculate these data cheapens their legitimate and hard-earned academic achievements.
Reporting on the Scorecard, National Public Radio suggested that “what the government released … isn’t a scorecard at all -- it’s a data dump of epic proportions.” That is a correct assessment that speaks to the crux of the problem. More data, in this case, is not better. In open phone calls with reporters, department officials have acknowledged the limitations of their data, seemingly citing that very acknowledgment as license to publish them anyway. Yet no such acknowledgment is made clearly on the new Scorecard’s website, where students will access the information to make their decisions.
Now that the floodgate of institutional data has been opened, however, it is incumbent on all of us to improve it, contextualize it and help interpret it so prospective students can be appropriately informed by it. Responding to the Scorecard, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called for “Congress through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to support a student-level data system for persistence, transfer, graduation and employment/income information to provide more complete data for all institutions.”
The University of Phoenix has long supported these principles and objectives -- not just in pushing for more complete data but also in making clear that the standards must be applied to all institutions of higher learning. We agree with both Republicans and Democrats who want to see more audit-ready data for every college and university so as to validate and verify the foundational basis upon which the department creates and enforces regulations that should be applied to all higher education institutions (last year’s gainful employment rules among them). More can be done to guard against potential political motivations in the presentation of public data.
For our part, University of Phoenix is also clear that we must improve student outcomes, as we generally have year over year. From significant investment in our core campuses to ensuring that first-time undergraduates complete a pathway diagnostic before enrolling in their first credit-bearing course, we are engaged in the work that will help us to continue improving those outcomes and, more generally, to transform into a better, more trusted institution.
In the year I have been president, I have met with thousands of our students and graduates -- the men and women who are the face of that nontraditional category. These are people who are achieving great academic success despite the other demands that contemporary life imposes. They are driven, ambitious, determined and hardworking. And they leave me in no doubt of two things: their success deserves to be appropriately recognized, and their successors deserve better information in picking a college. We can all play a role in securing these basic goals.
Timothy P. Slottow is president of University of Phoenix.
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