TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

Can universities be embarrassed into raising graduation rates?

BY Jon Marcus, The Hechinger Report  August 29, 2014 at 11:17 AM EDT
Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Indiana is ahead of many other states in widely broadcasting public universities’ and colleges’ success rates as part of an attempt to rates them up. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was the last day of student government elections at Purdue University, and junior Bobby Hadrix, running for class president, was doing some 11th-hour stumping on the campus oval alongside fervent supporters in bright red matching T-shirts.

rethinkingcollegeAlthough they hadn’t become an issue in the campaign, Purdue’s graduation rates had just been publicly announced for the first time as part of Indiana’s new effort to increase the number of degree holders in the state. And the news was not good.

Only 38 percent of students seeking bachelor’s degrees, who did not transfer, were managing to graduate on time, the state reported. Nearly a third still hadn’t finished after even eight years.

Newspaper editorial pages blasted the university, and other institutions whose results were worse; the average on-time graduation rate at four-year schools in Indiana turned out to be 28 percent, and only 4 percent at two-year community colleges.

Those numbers are higher than the 19 percent national average on-time completion rate for four-year universities, and the same as the national average for community colleges, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. But they were still “alarming,” pronounced the state’s commissioner of higher education, who added there was “cause for even deeper concern” about the fact that graduation rates for racial minorities and low-income students were lower still.

Hadrix, an industrial-engineering major with a minor in management, said he trusted Purdue’s president, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who had reacted by calling the numbers “jarring,” and Daniels’s subordinates, who promised to do better.

But being called out publicly like that, he said, “keeps them honest.”

People “have a right to know,” said one of his opponents, accounting major Steven Caltrider, as he canvassed another corner of the campus. (Hadrix ultimately won.) “It does create a little more pressure to adjust these things.”

Indiana is ahead of many other states in widely broadcasting public universities’ and colleges’ success rates as part of an attempt to force them up by, among other things, providing information to prospective students and their families weighing where to enroll. This was the first time the numbers were so publicly released.

It’s a strategy much like what the Obama administration is proposing to do nationally with ratings of all higher-education institutions — private as well as public — and could serve as a test of how universities and colleges respond.

“The institutions have had a lot of this data internally for a long time, but it hasn’t gotten anyone’s attention,” said Stan Jones, founder and president of Complete College America and himself a former Indiana commissioner of higher education.

When it’s publicized, Jones said, the information “gets the attention of the presidents, it gets the attention of the trustees. People don’t want to be identified with those low graduation numbers.”

Indiana’s reports, which will be issued annually, are part of a full-court press in the Hoosier state to nearly double the proportion of people with degrees, by 2025, from its current 33 percent — 40th-lowest out of the 50 states.

Fixing that, said Teresa Lubbers, the state’s higher-education commissioner, “begins with a clearer understanding of where we are and where we need to go.”

Like the federal government, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has limited direct control of the state’s largely autonomous universities. But — also like the federal government — it can use information to affect policy.

“We think the greatest value we can bring as a coordinating board is to provide good data,” Lubbers said. “Even if it’s not a ranking, people look to see where they fit in and how they can do better.”

The information doesn’t only drive change by universities, said Lubbers. It can bring further pressure on them by influencing student enrollment decisions and moving policymakers to demand improved results.

Purdue is trying to push up its on-time graduation rates, and began several efforts to do so even before the figures were so widely publicized. Those include developing technology that can raise the alert when student grades or attendance start to fall, and streamlining its separate student affairs departments into one, reducing red tape and confusion.

The university has also raised admissions standards.

“We were admitting students who just weren’t going to make it,” said outgoing Purdue provost Tim Sands.

In five years, the reforms have helped to boost the proportion of first-year students who return for a second year to a comparatively high 90 percent, up from about 84 percent, Sands said.

Still, he said, it will take a while for progress like this to show up in the on-time graduation rates.

“We do get a little frustrated by that,” said Sands, who took over as president of Virginia Tech this summer. “But that’s not enough for me to say we shouldn’t be publishing the numbers.”

National university and college associations largely oppose Obama’s federal ratings plan, however, and those critics have a key congressional ally in Lamar Alexander, ranking Republican on the Senate Education Committee, who has called the idea a “popularity contest” and said he’ll move to block funding for it.

Many higher-education institutions complain the national ratings wouldn’t take into account the different audiences they serve, their different purposes, and the level of their students’ preparation. They also say that federal data about such things as completion rates is imprecise.

Indiana’s experience backs that up, too. Though the figures Indiana uses are more complete than what the federal government collects, even they fail to take into account, for instance, that some degrees at Purdue are supposed to take five years, not four — yet students who take five years to graduate are counted among those considered not to finish on time. State officials say that oversight will be corrected.

Federal statistics also don’t track transfer students — students who may start at one school but finish at another; they show up as dropouts. Indiana’s do, and Lubbers said they show that tracking transfer students boosts the statewide graduation-rate picture by eight percent for community colleges and 13 percent for four-year universities.

“We get greater buy-in if the colleges and universities believe the policies are being driven by good data,” Lubbers said.

Perfect or imperfect, those figures in Indiana are resulting in “a lot of positive discussion,” Sands said.

“You hope there’s enough care taken with the numbers that people don’t just take them at face value,” he said. “But if that drives us to be a little better, that’s not a bad thing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.