AIR Report Offers New Model for Calculating College Grad Rates

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan non-profit that conducts behavioral and social science research, has released a report titled “Toward Improved Measurement of Student Persistence and Completion” which describes how the U.S. Department of Education can more accurately report graduation rates.

In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 70,000 students earned an undergraduate credential from a college or a university that had a zero percent graduation rate. Additionally, 2.6 million students were new enrollees in 2014, but they will not be counted in the graduation rate of their colleges, regardless of whether they ever complete a certificate or degree.

The report details how hundreds of thousands of students have “slipped through the cracks of the metric that describes the most fundamental outcome of college attendance: graduation.” The report alleges that the U.S. Education Department makes an active decision not to include specific types of learners in its college graduation reports.

The learners who are excluded from college graduation rates are not considered full-time, first-time students when beginning their college studies. Some, enrolling for their first time, chose to balance their studies with work and opted to study part-time.

Others, who are working adults, choose to return to college after a period of absence to complete a certification or degree for potential higher earnings, better job opportunities, or personal enrichment. More began their postsecondary education at one institution and chose to transfer to another, where they earned their credentials. All of these types of students are not included in the U.S. Department Education statistics on graduation rates.

The report argues that a valid measure of “institutional performance” that reflects all kinds of student achievement is critical for both colleges and students. Having accurate information on graduation will allow students to make informed decisions when looking for an institution of higher learning. Performance measures of colleges and universities also correlate with employment and wage prospects, something of critical interest to any student.

Furthermore, independent colleges and universities submit performance measures, namely graduation rates, to independent outlets like U.S. News Report, Forbes, and the Department of Education to determine rankings on various scorecards. Thus, reporting the most accurate statistics will allow colleges’ reputations to fare better among the education commentariat.

Additionally, strong performance measures are also tied to state and federal funding, competitiveness for research grants, and longterm institutional viability. Colleges themselves have a vested interest in tabulating graduation statistics that reflect all kinds of student accreditation.

American Institutes for Research partnered with 11 colleges and universities to use institutionally-held data that allows them to calculate and contrast the completion rates of their students using various methodologies. The results of the report demonstrate how well different methods reflects and can be employed to determine the totality of an institution’s incoming students, as well as those students completion outcomes.

After reviewing the status quo of graduation rate reporting at length, the paper offers new models in how best to determine these statistics for institutional accountability.

The full report is available online.