Phi Beta Cons

Accountability and Accuracy

Graduation rates that only track first-time, full-time freshmen provide only a partial measure of schools’ success. This widely cited metric leaves out large cohorts of students who transfer or attend part time, but do, in fact, graduate.

Now, a group of six organizations has launched a project aimed at getting the graduation rate right. The Student Achievement Measure (SAM) gets past outdated assumptions about how students move through college to provide a clearer idea of which schools are putting students on a path to success and which are not.    

SAM provides two major innovations: it tracks students after they’ve gone on to another institution and it allows schools to differentiate between different patterns of enrollment. Two models are used—one for bachelor’s degree seekers and one for associate’s degree or certificate seekers. These are further broken down into part-time and full-time students, a procedure that addresses a crucial flaw in the current model by allowing us to measure each group against an appropriate standard.

This is a timely innovation. With as many as 35% of first-time students transferring at least once during their college career, our methods for measuring graduation rates must improve or they will rapidly lose accuracy and therefore value.

While it must be noted that merely graduating is no assurance a student has been well-served by her institution, it is a sensible place to start. Graduation may not be a sufficient condition for future success, but it is almost always a necessary one. We know, for instance, that students who start college but don’t graduate are among those who struggle the most financially and socially.

It is crucial that we do more to ensure those who begin a degree, and invest substantial time and resources therein, actually attain it. Comparing graduation rates can help us find what works, but only if those rates are constructed in a way that allows for meaningful comparison.

Alex McHugh — Alex McHugh is a research associate at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). He also coordinates ACTA¹s social media presence. He graduated from American University in 2014 with ...

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