The National Student Clearinghouse’s most recent analysis closes gaping holes in how we currently report college graduation rates. It gives us rates for full-time and part-time students, a distinction we haven’t previously had, and it counts students who transfer among institutions—a glaring omission in the federally managed IPEDs database. When these students are added to the equation, the national college graduation rate actually increases from 42 to 54 percent. This is telling—and troubling; more students are graduating from college than we currently believe, but we’ll never know it if the federal database doesn’t start counting a growing population of our nation’s postsecondary students.
Today’s college students are more “nontraditional” than not. Just 27 percent of college students are “fresh out of high school and studying full-time at a four-year school.” The “traditional” student of the 1970s is becoming the minority, and it’s time our federal data reflect that. The Clearinghouse analysis found that almost a quarter of 2012 college graduates got their degrees at an institution different from where they started. It also defined half of students as “mixed enrollment,” or moving from full-time to part-time or vice versa. Because IPEDs only counts first-time, full-time students, students like these are left out of the mix.
Glaring omissions like these not only leave prospective students—and the public—misinformed; they also hurt institutions like community colleges that post lower graduation rates because a larger percentage of those students attend part-time—or transfer to a four-year university without earning a credential at the two-year school. Beyond that, how can policymakers and accrediting agencies govern institutions if they don’t have the complete picture on student outcomes?
Because of its unique dataset, the Clearinghouse was able to document better performance among part-time, nontraditional students (defined as older than 24 years) than part-time, traditional students. This suggests, as the Clearinghouse report says, that part-time enrollment “is associated with completion risks for traditional-age students.” But before policymakers and institutions can diagnose this problem, they have to know it is there. And under IPEDs data, they won’t.
Despite all of its good, the Clearinghouse analysis stops short of providing one essential piece of information for both prospective college students and policymakers: Graduation rates by institution, something IPEDs does provide (although inaccurately). Without institutional-level data, we don’t know how universities fare in churning out graduates. This is a disservice to students looking for information that will help them make a smart decision about college; to college administrators looking to identify struggling groups of students and the supports they need to graduate; and to policymakers and accrediting agencies that hold institutions accountable for producing an educated workforce. A more accurate picture of graduation rates would lead to more degrees in students’ hands, higher graduation rates for institutions, and a more skilled workforce for our nation’s economy.
Photo Credit: Maja Stevanovich