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March 09, 2012 5:36 PM Graduation Rates, A Crude Tool

By Daniel Luzer

The latest trend in higher education reform has to do with funding state institutions based, at least on some level, on their graduation rates. “We have to make the same commitment to getting folks across the graduation stage that we did to getting them into the registrar’s office,” Vice President Joe Biden said last year.

The Department of Education, in support of that idea, introduced the First in the World initiative, which would provide $123 million in competitive funds to support programs to increase college completion rates.

But some critics wonder if perhaps graduation rate is far too simplistic to measure much of anything. According to an article by Jeff Selingo in the Huffington Post:

College campuses are full of long-held assumptions about how academe works. A perilous one for the future of American higher education is that high-school students pick a college, enroll, and — two or four years later — graduate from the same institution.
That pathway hasn’t been the norm for a majority of college students for quite some time. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which gets information basically in real-time from institutions, found that one-third of students transfer from one college to another before earning a degree. More than a quarter of transfers cross state lines, and perhaps most important, they are more likely to switch from a four-year college to a two-year one rather than the other way around (another long-held assumption in higher ed).

None of this transferring around, going to college out of state, or graduating from a two year school after starting elsewhere, has any meaning for federal tracking. The federal government doesn’t even recognize this behavior at all. This policy excludes up to 50 percent of all students, according to Selingo.

In truth, if a college has a really low graduation rate, it’s probably not doing a very good job with its students. If a college has really high graduation rate, it’s probably not so bad. But beyond that, it’s hard to get more specific. It appears that graduation rate doesn’t really mesure quality so much as it’s just vaguely correlated with quality. Using graduating rates, as they’re currently tracked, to measure college value is, thus, not a very responsible decision.

The federal government isn’t interesting in tracking graduation rates to federal funding in order to punish schools. The goal of such a policy change, presumably, is to encourage meaningful reform.

But it looks like, at least as far as Selingo is concerned, graduation rates are too rough a measure to really say anything useful.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer