Are we evaluating colleges the right way?
By Arthur M. Hauptman (Consultant)
There is little question that the shift in policy focus in this country over the past decade from access to success has been a positive development. College officials and policy makers at both the federal and state levels now recognize that it is not enough to measure the scope of higher education just in terms of how many students enroll; if we as a nation are to remain globally competitive, it is also critical to ensure that more students actually complete their program and attain a degree.
But are high college-completion rates a good indicator of educational quality, and do increases in completion rates over time mean that quality is improving? As with so many things, the answer is that it depends. If higher completion rates are achieved by high schools doing a better job of preparing their students, or by colleges and universities paying more attention to the needs of students once they enroll, or by states financing institutions at least partly based on the number of students who graduate, then we are on the right track in using completion rates to improve quality.
In some other important ways, though, the attainment and completion debate in this country has taken some wrong turns over the past five years. One such misdirection is the assumption that higher completion rates automatically result in higher attainment rates. To understand the problem here, we need to recognize that completion and attainment rates do not measure the same thing. Completion rates are the percentage of students who finish the program they began, while attainment rates measure the share of the adult population who hold a degree.
Traditionally the United States has had high rates of bachelor’s-degree attainment compared to some other countries. But this ranking was not achieved by having high completion rates. Indeed, for a long time we have had comparatively mediocre completion rates because we expend more effort to increase access than many other countries that have more elitist systems of higher education. So the traditional U.S. leadership in bachelor’s-degree attainment has been a function of enrolling lots of students who, even with modest completion rates, produce very high rates of bachelor’s-degree attainment. The stimulus for the national debate we are having is that we now rank much lower on all measures of educational attainment.
But it is a mistake to assume that modest completion rates are the reason for our lower standing when it comes to attainment. Rather, the philosophy and the policies of countries, states, and systems of institutions are the primary determinant of completion rates. For example, a country with an elitist higher-education system that allows only 10 or 15 percent of its population to enroll in college is likely to have a much higher completion rate than a country that allows a much broader share of its population to enroll.
Similarly, it is also a mistake to use institutional completion rates as a measure of educational quality, because institutional selectivity is by far the principal predictor of completion rates. An open-access institution that graduates 50 percent of its students is most likely doing a much better job of educating its students than a highly selective institution that graduates only 60 percent of the students who enroll. So in assessing the record of institutions with regard to their quality, they ought to be compared with peer institutions with similar degrees of selectivity. If we are really interested in improving and measuring quality, then we should look to other indicators that measure the worth and value of the educational process, such as a willingness to invest in faculty who are good teachers and a commitment to provide a quality education to whichever students are admitted.
Arthur M. Hauptman is a public-policy consultant specializing in finance issues in higher education.
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.