Is Linking Funding to College Graduation Rates ‘Misguided’?

A growing number of states are looking to link a portion of their higher education funding to graduation rates. Many call it a logical next step in the drive for accountability that began some years ago in primary and secondary education systems.

Yet according to John Wernecke writing for The Lantern, forcing such a link is misguided since graduation rates are a poor measure of how well universities are actually performing when it comes to educating students.

When funding is linked to graduation rates, colleges will respond by "rushing" students through their programs and into their mortarboards, regardless of what this might do to academic standards. At the moment, fewer than half of Americans who have earned a college degree did so in 4 years, so it makes sense to ask why lawmakers and college administrators are looking to change that.

In an essay titled "How Undergraduate Education Became College Lite" Murray Sperber, English professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, blames a "non-aggression pact" among students, professors and administrations. Students are unlikely to complain about easier, watered-down classes and the inflated grades that go along with them. Given the option, professors are often happy to pursue ventures beyond grading student papers. Since university administrators are not held accountable to improving graduates' skills and knowledge they are just as unlikely as the students and professors to break the cycle. Instead, schools are more likely to gain prestige for non-academic factors like selectivity, size, and football team ranking.

In an analysis of research on the topic, Patrick Terenzini and Ernest Pascarella came to the conclusion that measures used by ranking publishers like the U.S. News typically don't reflect schools' quality very well, if at all. In a paper titled How College Affects Students, they claim that benefits obtained by the students from their college degrees correlated very loosely with "traditional measures of institutional quality."

So the US News rankings aren't much to go off. Maybe that was already obvious to some — but a look at the list of "high points," our "select accomplishments and points of pride" published on Ohio State's website, shows that we put our US News rankings front and center. Graduate and undergraduate. Wexner Medical Center, too. 

OSU's apparent pride in these contested rankings is easy to brush off as a necessary move to promote school pride, but we really should run in the opposite direction. The escape will not be easy either — last year, state funds made up 9.3 percent of OSU's income according to Ohio State's Office of Institutional Research and Planning. Such a big chunk left hanging in the balance means the administration will strain to meet the graduation rates encouraged by Kasich and drafted by the university presidents.

The push for higher graduation rates will push schools to compete harder for the best candidates, figuring that those who performed well in high school will be more likely to stay on track in college, too. But doing that will not prove that one school is superior to another anymore than – as Wernecke puts it – operating on healthier hearts will not prove that the surgeon is improving his or her skills.

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