Racin’ to the College Tops

When we talk about grad rates, the discussion immediately centers on high schools.  Drop-out factories and GEDs.  Dual enrollment and AP/IB.  ELLs and special needs.  For most, graduation rates are simply a K-12 game.

Two years ago, though, President Obama declared that the United States would produce the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  In the course of this declaration, many uncovered U.S. education’s dirty little secret.  College grad rates are atrocious.  At many campuses, particularly our state colleges and universities, the norm is a six-year graduation rate (meaning giving students six years to graduate from a four-year program) south of 60 percent. 
Yesterday, the Obama Administration decided to take a step forward in its confrontation of postsecondary drop-outs.  Citing a need to graduate 8 million more college students by 2020, Vice President Joe Biden announced new funding to deal with college graduation issues.
The announcement included $20 million to colleges to “implement plans that can increase success and improve productivity in postsecondary schools.”  It also proposed $123 million competitive funds to “support programs that embrace innovative practices” in higher education.  A proposed College Completion Incentive Grant programs throws another $50 million in the kitty for IHEs “undertaking reforms that produce more college graduates.”  The full package is being referred, by some, as a Race to the Top for higher education.
Let there no mistake.  The mission and goals articulated by Vice President Biden are both noble and necessary.  Billions of dollars are underutilized each and every year by students who enroll for a first year of college, but never return for a second.  And that is just in grant money, not including loans or savings.  After decades of preaching the importance of a college education, it is high time we started putting our money behind a sermon on the importance of actually earning the sheepskin.
The problem with such an ambitious and well-meaning agenda, though, is data.  In that, we have very little data, and the data we have is pretty poor.  The U.S. Department of Education captures higher ed data through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — or IPEDS — but such data is self-reported by the colleges and universities themselves (and many colleges actually disavow the very data they provide).  if a student drops out of our institution and re-enrolls in another, we have no idea.  We know college A has a dropout.  We know college B has an enrollee.  But our data systems don’t let us know that that dropout/enrollee is the same person.  Put simply, IPEDS is the best, worst, and only higher ed data system we have.
Last fall, I was fortunate to work on the development of College Measures, a website developed by American Institutes for Research and former NCES Commissioner (and thus IPEDS overseer) Mark Schneider.  Using IPEDS and other higher ed data sources, College Measures places a magnifying glass to key outcome measures for more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities across the nation.  The results are startling.
The U.S. college graduation rate is just 57.6%, with public colleges posting a 55.1% grad rate and for-profits posting a 16.6% grad rate.  The first retention rate (meaning first-year students who return for a second year of college) is just 78.4% nationally.  That’s right.  More than four in 10 students enrolled in college won’t earn their diplomas.  And nearly a quarter of students who started college this past fall won’t return for year two this fall.  And don’t even get me started on what you see for particular IHEs.
Why are these numbers, as well as the wealth of information on state and individual institution performance found on College Measures, so important?  
Baseball philosopher Yogi Berra is famous for saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might just get there.”  While this may be true for baseball, it is the furthest thing from the truth in education, particularly higher education.  Noble goals, without the data to support them, are destined to fail.  If we are serious about improving college graduation rates, we need to be crystal clear on current numbers, current problems, and the general state of affairs.  if IHEs are going to innovate and reform, they need a clear understanding of the available data, need to determine the additional data necessary to declare mission accomplished, and then need to actually gather AND ANALYZE that subsequent data to truly determine the impact and return on investment.
Unfortunately, many of our colleges and universities just aren’t in a position to undertake such data efforts.  Initiatives like College Measures or Education Trust’s College Results Online are essential data pieces for connecting the rhetorical goals articulated by the President and Vice President with the realities happening on college campuses throughout the nation.  We know where we want to go when it comes to college grad rates.  But it’ll take us good data (and good people to analyze and interpret that data) to actually get us there.

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