New National Tally of College Completion Tries to Count All Students

For years, higher-education leaders have argued that dismal college-completion rates fail to capture the single mother who could squeeze in only a few classes per semester or the serviceman who started at one college and finished years later at another. On Thursday, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released a report that takes account of the circuitous but ultimately successful routes that students often take toward a college degree.

The report, “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates,” concludes that when such nontraditional but increasingly common patterns of enrollment are considered, the national completion rate jumps to 54 percent, from 42 percent. Among full-time students, 75 percent earn a degree or certificate within six years.

While those numbers are lower than most educators would like, they aren’t as alarming as the figures that state and federal policy makers have decried in calling for policies that tie budget allocations to colleges’ graduation rates.

Many students who are balancing classes with family and work obligations attend more than one institution and take longer to earn a certificate or degree, the report points out. “Conventional measures of success, such as graduation rates for institution-based, first-time full-time degree-seeking cohorts, are insufficient for recognizing the distinctive pathways these students take, or for understanding the particular risks and supports that shape their academic careers,” it says.

That clunky series of hyphenated conditions is familiar to anybody who relies on the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the limited proportion of students it counts. Although the Department of Education announced in April that it would soon include part-time and transfer students in its graduation-rate tallies, changes in data collection will be a slow process. Of course, many higher-education types would like to track all students through a federal unit-record system, but opponents have blocked such a project, citing privacy concerns. <Read more.>

Via Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Ed.