Are we evaluating colleges the right way?
By Sylvia Hurtado (UCLA)
College-completion rates only partially reflect institutional quality, and we have yet to adequately make use of completion information for institutional improvement where it is needed most—with students who are first generation, low income, or are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Recent analyses of national data that track full cohorts of freshmen to graduation suggest that completion rates reflect entering-student characteristics and intentions, how students are able to finance college, peer norms associated with enrollment-mobility patterns, and institutional resources.
If we hope to improve degree completion in this country, we have to use more sophisticated ways of assessing completion rates that not only inform students who are making choices but are also fair to institutions with fewer resources that are doing the most to offer access to diverse college students and advance them toward a degree.
The recent report on Completing College released by the Higher Education Research Institute encourages the use of completion rates adjusted for entering-student characteristics and intentions to assist campuses in assessing whether they are doing better than expected (or worse) based on the types of students that they recruit and admit. That is, it is well established that students who are low income, first generation, part of an underrepresented minority, or entering college with lower academic ability are more likely to leave their original college for a variety of reasons.
This tendency for student mobility is almost a force of nature, particularly at broad-access institutions in urban areas. Students take advantage of higher-education opportunity as it suits their learning needs, goals for particular careers, or family finances. Over all, the likelihood of a student’s completing a degree at his or her first college is lower when many peers are attending part time, consider it normal to stop their education, have to work many hours per week, or take some of their courses at other local colleges.
Moreover, the lingering economic downturn affects students’ decisions to stay as much as it affects colleges’ ability to offer aid, open more sections of classes, or provide support for the students most likely to leave college. In fact, the higher the loan that students take out in the first year of college, the less likely they are to graduate from the same college six years later.
We now have the data to try a more systemic approach to degree completion. We can identify institutions that contribute to the degree progress of underrepresented students by sharing the assessment of institutional impact and employ intermediate benchmarks to help institutions review internal policies or economic decisions that may be causing unnecessary mobility among particular groups of students.
Instead of ranking institutions using completion rates, we should find ways to use measures of degree completion that reward institutional contributions to improving degree progress over all and equity in degree-completion rates across populations. This could permit institutions to share resources via regional consortium agreements, allow families to conserve resources or reduce costs, and give students more choices if they can obtain basic skills and general-education courses at one institution and select majors at any number of local institutions.
The point is not to halt student mobility but to allow institutions to exert more control over it—to channel students instead of either diverting them or ignoring the issue completely. Completion rates should reflect both institutional contributions and collective efforts to increase degree attainment and educational equity.
This essay was originally published as an answer to the question, “Do College Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 2012.