- A new report from Third Way, a moderate think tank, looks at higher ed outcomes by sector, concluding that the industry as a whole can do better at providing a strong return on investment for students and the general public.
- Researchers found private, four-year institutions to have the strongest graduation rates, and student loan repayment rates — but they enroll fewer students than their public counterparts. However, 4 in 10 didn't finish their degree at the institution at which they first enrolled. Public four-year institutions boast the highest number of students earning over $25,000 annually, though private and for-profit institutions don't lag far behind.
- Certificate programs see significantly higher graduation rates than community colleges, but traditional two-year schools show higher earning potential and, thus, loan repayment outcomes.
It is a dangerous game to begin comparing institutions strictly based on the numbers without contextualizing data with consideration of institutional mission. The Third Way report does try to offer some broad context surrounding the types of students each sector is most likely to enroll; however, in order to paint a bigger picture, higher ed administrators should work with their data departments to go even further to collaborate with federal reporting agencies.
The biggest flaw with federal data is the archaic way in which it is tracked: Increasingly smaller populations of students on campus are first-time, full-time students in 2017. In fact, a 2015 report from the National Clearing House Research Center found that over one-third of students will transfer at least once in the course of their matriculation through college — and those students are not tracked for the purposes of federal data, other than to negatively weigh on the beginning institution's graduation and retention rates.
Additionally, as data scientist Urban Wiggins pointed out to an audience last week during the HBCU Executive Media Training Institute in Washington, D.C., many institutions have special programs to admit students who would not otherwise meet the enrollment criteria — and graduation and retention rates for these students should not be lumped in with the general outcomes for all students. Further, any student who may have returned after taking time off or reduced his course load to part-time to work or attend to personal matters is not counted — a particularly damning fact for community colleges, which are often the greatest admitters of students who are not both first-time and full-time students.
Magnifying the change tracking data differently could make is a hot-off-the-press study by the American Council on Education on the graduation outcomes at historically black and other minority-serving institutions. The report revealed that the federal graduation rate for HBCUs is 34.1%. But, when accounting for all students tracked by the National Student Clearinghouse — which includes transfer students — that number rises to 43%, and when considering only full-time students, the number is 62%.
While institutional leaders work to present a picture of their institution which is both more favorable and more accurate, it is also incumbent on the U.S. Department of Education to recognize that the nature of higher education has changed dramatically since it began tracking data and update the reporting system. This is the reason for much of the backlash surrounding the College Scorecard, which sought to rank institutions based on these metrics and, in its early iteration, allocate funding accordingly.