April 21, 2008

College graduation

The new Ed Sector report by Kevin Carey, Graduation Rate Watch, summarizes some of the material available from the IPEDS 6-year graduation measures for four-year colleges and universities. The main point is that there are vast differences within different higher-ed sectors not only in 6-year graduation stats but also Black-White differences in graduation. He correctly points out that some institutions such as Florida State have programs that appear at first glance to provide substantial support to first-generation college students, support that increases the likelihood of graduating.

Kudos: the interesting slice of IPEDS rates, with the appropriate hedges/caveats; the nod to Vincent Tinto's work; the acknowledgment of Cliff Adelman's suggestion for improving the IPEDS measures; the observation that U.S. News & World Report rankings largely diss graduation rates as ways to distinguish institutions; the recommendation that financial aid be shifted away from its merit-based emphasis today and back towards means-testing; the observation that funding enrollment does not provide a strong incentive for retention programs.

Kumquats: the continued push for a national unit records database. I think that's the only DOA suggestion in a compact, complex report. I may disagree with some other ideas, but the report on the whole is thoughtful and presents issues in a clear way. I might want a bit more use of the current college-retention literature, but I can't point to specifics because that's outside my area of expertise.

Some broader issues that complicate efforts to increase undergraduate graduation:

  • A large proportion of college students are in community colleges, and programs that focus on first-time-in-college students at universities are great... and limited to that sector of higher education.
  • Part-time students are a serious puzzle in terms of retention and even measurement. In many states, part-time students have a much harder time getting aid (in part because they are often older, and in part because of minimal-credit requirements). They also have competing obligations, are on campus less frequently, etc. I love older students in my classes for very selfish reasons (they are more mature, they help teach their classmates simply by being there and talking about their lives), but I'm not sure who has cracked the practical challenges that part-time students present for themselves and for their colleges.
  • Health crises can turn a student with marginal success into a student who has dropped out, and young adults are among the least likely Americans to have adequate health insurance.
  • Institutional pecking orders are hard to pinpoint, and they can shift rapidly: witness Florida, where reduced funding is pushing most of the state's public universities into being far more selective. My guess is that graduation rates will rise in 4-5 years, but while some institutions (including mine) are figuring out how some concrete steps to increase student success, some part of that will be a selection effect. So making comparisons with "peer institutions" may be a difficult enterprise.
  • Measures focused on undergraduates make it somewhat more difficult for graduate-focused institutions in any incentive system. States need to be flexible and negotiate the systems with institutions, or they are likely to provide odd advantages to some institutions over others, advantages that will only be discovered after the fact.
And those are the issues that are apparent to me without knowing the higher-ed attrition/retention/graduation literature. There is one faculty colleague at USF who focuses on higher-ed attrition, and there are IR gurus for whom this is an occupational focus, so I do have local resources... now I really need that Time-Turner. But for now, it's 11:30 pm, and I still need to provide feedback on a student thesis...

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Posted in Education policy on April 21, 2008 11:31 PM |