Education Opinion

More On The Times Story On Graduation Rates

By Alexander Russo — February 13, 2007 3 min read
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There’s probably no one who knows more about college graduation rates than longtime USDE data guru Cliff Adelman (now Senior Associate, Institute for Higher Education Policy).

While not criticizing Dillon directly or praising the University of Phoenix for its programs, Adelman says that data used prominently in the NYT story are extremely problematic. “I don’t think one can even judge a Phoenix “graduation rate” in the traditional sense of beginning students completing degrees---not with our current formula.”

Click below to read the full Adelman analysis. From Adelman:

Leaving aside the issue of the quality of what Phoenix (and its ilk) delivers, on which I will not comment:

First, the ludicrous federal definition of graduation rate counts only those who (a) entered in a fall term, (b) entered as full-time students, and (c) graduated from the same institution in which they began.

What’s wrong with that? To keep everything matched with Phoenix, which is technically a 4-year school: 8 percent of entering 4-year college students don’t start in the fall term (among community college beginners, it’s 25 percent)--rather (usually) winter/spring (though there is some summer--and we can talk about that separately). Another 27 percent start part-time (52% for community college beginners). So right away the federal formula (“Congressional Methodology” as it is called) excludes roughly a third of students from the calculation of graduation rates.

Second, 20% of those who start in a 4-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree earn it from a different 4-year college. These folks aren’t counted as successful completers under the Congressional Methodology because the formula does not recognize transfers-in. Likewise, 15 percent of the bachelor’s completers in any one year had started in a community college. The community college may get credit for the fact that these student transferred to a 4-year, but the 4-year gets no credit for their graduation---'cause we don’t count transfers in. So, at the level of the bachelor’s degree the feds do not recognize 35% of the students who actually earn the degree.

Now STOP because there’s something more important. The data I just gave you come from the most recently completed of the U.S. Department of Education’s longitudinal studies that started with 8th graders and followed them through age 26/27. And it’s transcript-based data, so it doesn’t lie.

But a national longitudinal study such as that is about your daughter and her friends, not your brother-in-law. These folks live on different planets, and, as I reminded folks in “The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College” (U.S. Department of Education, 2006), if you mix them together in the same analysis you distort both reality and policy based on that false mix.

Older beginning students are even less likely to enter in the fall term or as full-time students. Your brother-in-law may be a smart and determined guy, but he comes with 2 kids, 2 cars, 2 mortgages, and 2 jobs. Your daughter comes with none of the above, right? Oh, and if your 31 year-old brother-in-law had attended college for a year when he was 19, he’s not counted under the Congressional Methodology ‘cause he’s not really a “first time” student.

It’s your brother-in-law who is the typical Phoenix student. If he is truly first-time, his chances of finishing a degree in 6 years (the censoring date under federal calculations) are pretty low. Maybe 8 or 9 years, but we don’t know because none of our longitudinal studies that include older beginning students run for more than 6 years. I don’t think one can even judge a Phoenix “graduation rate” in the traditional sense of beginning students completing degrees---not with our current formula.

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