I just might have to pinch myself. One of my dreams for higher education looks like it is actually going to come true. On Wednesday, the Department of Education released an action plan to enhance postsecondary graduation rate data. If you’re not excited about this, you should be. For years, we’ve been using incomplete—woefully incomplete—completion data. And yet policymakers and researchers have had no choice but to use this untrustworthy data. But now that’s about to change.
Higher education in the United States has a definite dropout (or stopout) problem. According to the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), 57 percent of students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years and 27 percent completed an associate’s degree within three. If those numbers seem bleak, they are. According to the OECD, the United States ranked 12th in postsecondary attainment in the world among 24- to 34-year-olds.
But what if I told you these graduation rates might be meaningless? Our students might be graduating at higher rates. Or at even lower rates. The truth is, the postsecondary attainment crisis is invisible. And here’s why:
1. Part-time students are excluded. According to NCES, approximately 38 percent of students attend college part-time. Institutions with large percentages of part-time students, like community colleges and less selective institutions, aren’t counting vast numbers of students in their graduation rates.
2. Students who have previously attended another institution are excluded. Increasingly, students are “swirling” in and out of institutions to complete their degrees. They may take classes at a community college, take some classes at a four-year university, and then attend another community college online. Since these students aren’t currently included in the graduation rate, they simply slip through the cracks.
3. Transfer students count as dropouts. Approximately one third of students transfer. When they do, they are counted as a dropout at the first university in which they were enrolled and they’re not counted at the next institution they attend.
Given the inadequate picture we have about postsecondary attainment, the Department of Education’s announcement to improve graduation data is momentous. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Better data across institutions is the basis for finding sound solutions to help students stay in school and complete their postsecondary studies. It is critical to their success and our nation’s economic prosperity.”
Secretary Duncan is right. We may still have a long way (and many technical review panels) to go before we get the data, but starting to count all students is the first step to shedding some light on something that is currently too big to be seen. And you can’t address an invisible crisis until it comes to light.