Completion Rates

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Finally we are getting somewhere. Just last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the major news journal of Higher Education, released its new website http://collegecompletion.chronicle.com/. The Project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation and is the most sophisticated and user-friendly site I have seen on college and university graduation rates. This is a major step in just the right direction for anyone desiring to know how seriously a college or university they might be contemplating entering takes its work of education.

Other sites that are helpful are, for instance, the California Colleges site developed with the assistance of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), or AICCU’s “UCAN” (“You can go to college”) site which offers information on California independent colleges and universities. Both sites are helpful but do not allow for the comparisons the new Chronicle site does. Or one can go to the US Department of Education’s IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems) site. However it is not nearly as friendly to use. It is built for researchers and government purposes, and these purposes are often not the same as the student or parent of students attempting to get a fix on the schools they are interested in. Plus it doesn’t give particularly useful breakouts of data for comparison—its work to use.

A couple of weeks ago President Obama announced his desire to create a College Scorecard and asked for public comment. I cannot help but think that private cooperative initiatives will be more helpful. Government efforts, no matter how well intentioned, are often heavy handed and do not provide the ease and directness we need.

The issue of the Chronicle in which the College Completion site was announced included a number of opinion pieces on why graduation rates are not the only measure of quality. Colleges and universities have an interest in what the data shows. Some may not look too good, compared to peers. Others are directed by state policy to have open entrance standards (that means a student does not need to have competitive grades or test scores to be admitted). Their primary mission is “access” rather than graduation. Those schools with higher entrance standards (higher selectivity in HE jargon) enroll students who are better prepared, often more serious about their studies, and so graduate at higher rates.

And researchers, by their professional training, like to raise questions of the data. It’s what they do. And they are at least partially correct. Graduation doesn’t measure everything. Some students, for instance, do not intend to graduate; they want classes to improve their skills, or a certificate in a certain professional area. And graduation rates do not measure quality. One way to increase graduation rates is to lower the demands of course work—fewer might fail, and more will graduate. No doubt there are all kinds of reasons why graduation rates are not the final measure of learning.

But let me declare myself in the debate. I am all for the new site and the ability to have access to comparable data in order to consider carefully the college or university anyone is looking into. One of the new initiatives of The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC, our accrediting agency) is to promote transparency, to encourage the presentatin of clear information about student retention (continuation from year to year) and graduation rates as a basic measure from which to begin to measure institutional quality. I embrace this move and the help that the new site provides in assisting students, parents, and higher education institutions themselves see more clearly and comparatively what they are accomplishing. Even given all of the qualifications of the higher education experts, the new move seems to me to be a sound one. I would invite anyone interested in understanding what happens at our various schools, and various types of schools to visit the site and spend some time exploring it. It will be illuminating.

When I tell students and parents that FPU has the highest four year graduation rate in the Valley, they are always impressed. When I tell them that it is just over 50% for those who enter as freshman, they seem confused. But when they see that our competitor schools are less than half of that they begin to understand. Having available the comparative data is a positive trend. It will give us information upon which to reflect. The student might ask, “What do I need to do to graduate on time?” The parent might wonder, “What should I expect in the coming years? What is a reasonably time to completion?” The school might try to determine, “Where do we sit in the higher education landscape? What should be our goals? What do we need to do to raise our graduation rate? And how do we help students understand that learning depends finally upon their willingness to pursue it with purpose and energy?” The data are there to begin to answer these and many more questions.

We in higher education ought to welcome the data and the thoughtfulness that has gone into the new site. I hope students and parents will find it helpful. Pass the site along.

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