most popular measure for public accountability of colleges and
universities is the federal graduation rate. But more and more
often, higher education leaders are criticizing both the accuracy of
the federal rate and way it is used as a single measure of success.
In the words of a report from the American Federation of Teachers
(AFT), this approach produces “a factually incorrect and misleading
picture of what is going on.”
The common federal measure of the graduation rate, from
IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data, reports
on graduation “within 150% of normal time.” That means six years for
baccalaureate degrees, and three years for associate degrees.
Moreover, this statistic includes only first-time full-time freshmen
who finish at the same college.
“How ridiculous it is that a student who completes a
year of community college and then earns a bachelor’s degree at a
four-year institution counts as a failure against the community
college, because the student did not complete an associate degree –
and as a nonentity at the four-year college, because transfer
students are not included in the federal data set,” wrote Diane Auer
Jones, former assistant secretary for postsecondary education, in
Chronicle of Higher Education last March.
Student Persistence in College: More than Counting
Caps and Gowns, an AFT report released in 2003, notes the
following about data provided under the federal Student Right to
Know Act (SRK): “The SRK graduation snapshot ...fails to account for
part-time students, who represent more than 40% of the student
population. It fails to account for the fact that a large number of
students transfer between four-year institutions, or between
community colleges, during their academic careers. It also fails to
account for the fact that many students get what they want from
college in terms of job skills or personal enrichment without
graduating. The SRK snapshot labels such students as failures when
they are really successes.” (The report is online at tinyurl.com/AFTcaps.)
Using only such federal data, graduation rates appear so
deplorably low that some have labeled public colleges and
universities as “failure factories”. But is this so? Are our
students failing more than succeeding? Are our efforts so
insufficient that we are to be exhorted to enter into “Campaigns for
Success,” in which the heart of the problem is defined as “changing
the culture” of our colleges? A more careful examination and more
diligent gathering of data reveals quite a different story.
Overreliance on this flawed federal data suppresses a
more accurate narrative in which students and faculty, facing major
challenges of underfunding and under-preparedness, persist and
produce a remarkable level of academic accomplishment over time
intervals longer than the years used in popular reports.
A woman perseveres and overcomes one obstacle after
another and graduates at a CUNY community college after 18 years.
For her family, she is a success story! Another with special needs
takes 10 years to obtain her baccalaureate. No faculty member seeing
them receive their degrees on graduation day would think of these
students, or what they did for them, as anything less than a
success. They cheer for them as do their families, for whom they
become powerful models for all those in their life circumstances.
Such achievers who persevere through hardship and constant
challenges demonstrate the high value that they place on education.
The benefits for themselves, their families and society from their
hard-won victories may be far greater than those that result from
degrees granted to well-prepared students who attend full-time for
four straight years.
Yes, these students’ difficult journey to success should be shorter
– and might have been, if they had been given better academic
preparation; if CUNY had the resources to expand student support
services (e.g., child care); if tuition assistance had been designed
to fit the realities of their lives (e.g., per-credit TAP); if they
did not bear the accumulated weight of a generation of underfunding
of public higher education.
Students should complete their degree programs as soon
as they can, and institutions must do all that they can to support
such outcomes. But a persistent and pernicious underfunding of
public higher education has made it difficult and in some cases
impossible to remediate the underpreparedness of many students for
college work, and a wide range of outside factors can slow or
prevent students from progressing towards completion.
What is striking, given the challenges our students
face, is just how many do graduate. The greater the effort to gather
complete data, the higher the graduation rate goes. In Passing
the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off
Across the Generations?,
Paul Attewell and David Lavin looked at women of color at CUNY and
their persistence rates and compared it to national data. Extending
their time frame out to 20 years, they found that these women did
graduate at a 70% rate, comparable to national trends.
This and other studies also reveal substantial benefits
– for families and for society – of attending college even without
attaining a degree. Students benefit in terms of their knowledge and
cultural awareness, and their children benefit from expanded
cultural and academic horizons, becoming more likely to enter into
higher education themselves.
Those who enter college with great economic challenges
and with less support or family history of experience with higher
education will take longer to graduate. Overreliance on the six-year
graduation rate obscures the academic achievements of CUNY students,
and fails to provide a useful picture of the obstacles they face.
The CUNY Campaign for Success and other initiatives that focus on
this popular graduation measure, and CUNY’s Performance Management
Program (PMP), which also uses that standard, can be construed as an
insult to the efforts of students and faculty alike.
Special programs at CUNY, such as ASAP or the proposed new community
college, now aim to provide enhanced support for select groups of
students who are expected to obtain an associate degree in two or
three years. While there are positive elements to such programs,
their “success” may be neither scalable nor sustainable.
The first problem is CUNY’s scarce resources. To replicate ASAP
or the New Community College plan for all community college
students at CUNY would require that the University’s budget be
increased by a presently impossible order of magnitude. CUNY’s
leaders should be honest about this – and in the meantime, faculty
must think about how we can best serve all community college
students, not just a small minority in a few select programs.
Second, using federal graduation rates as the key measure of
success may tempt colleges and universities to raise their “success”
rates with academic programs that exclude students whose
circumstances indicate a real possibility for graduation, but over a
longer period of time. Programs like ASAP (only full time and
nearly remediation exempt) and the New Community College Plan (no
transfers, only full time, not needing to work full time,
vocationally directed) select and support students in a manner that
can not scale to include all at our community colleges. Yet the
CUNY mission and Open Admissions aim to include the full diversity
of students who enter community colleges, with life situations that
include poor academic preparation, economic hardships, and family
responsibilities that will delay graduation well beyond the nominal
Programs at CUNY and elsewhere that offer significantly
increased academic and financial support will produce positive
changes in graduation rates. Dedicating more resources to public
colleges and their students is a positive step, and in fact long
overdue. But as we consider the best use of our scarce resources, we
need to think carefully about how to accurately define student
Beyond a change in the time interval, we need to change what is
measured altogether. Some who care about community colleges have
begun pushing back against the insistence upon a singular measure of
“success,” discussing what other measures would be more accurate,
realistic and truthful.
In 2006, colleges in Connecticut, Florida , North Carolina, Ohio,
Texas and Virginia began efforts to report a more complete
evaluation of community college student success, starting with the
academic goals students set for themselves: transfer as soon as
possible, part-time and persevere to graduation, career advancement
and personal growth. Sooner rather than later, New York and CUNY
should engage in a similar open evaluation of what we should
measure. It may be easier and politically expedient to use the
current measure but an honest effort to capture the full data gets
us all closer to the true story.
For those of us in CUNY who look at the human beings we
serve, we realize that in time most students do achieve and do
succeed, and that we work very hard to support their
efforts to do so. In fact, most of us have dedicated our lives to
that end. CUNY should work equally hard to tell these students’
stories. “Success” is written all over those tales, too often left
untold and uncounted.