From Door to Degrees
To increase educational attainment in the U.S., we must both improve college access - get more students in the door - and improve college completion - get more students to graduation. Even as more students go back to school and the feds pour more money into student aid, college completion rates continue to lag behind. Whether students are academically unprepared, forced to take on too many hours at a job or simply not engaged with their education, persistent drop-out rates and unprecedented years to degree completion are plaguing American colleges and universities.
Seeking innovative ways to keeping students in school, many education leaders have pointed to the data problem. Consistent methods for measuring institutional performance in this area beyond the number of degrees awarded are necessary to understand the root of the problem and identify real solutions. To fill this need, many education groups have started to work on designing both data collection methods and evaluative benchmarks. And at their recent annual conference, the National Governors Association (NGA) threw their hat into the ring.
Joe Manchin III, governor of West Virginia, is the new chairman of the NGA, and he chose college completion as his theme for his year at the helm. Why is this relevant to the NGA? Manchin makes the argument that state governments are under pressure to provide 'vital services' in tough economic times, which include higher education. By improving college completion rates, states can make their education systems more efficient, while also producing more college grads who will in turn contribute to the local economy.
While most new chairmen announce their plans at the summer meeting and then present research on the subject the following winter, Manchin got a head start. He's already assembled a research group and was able to present their first report at last weekend's meeting. 'Complete to Compete: Common College Completion Metrics' recommends a series of performance metrics of higher education to be implemented by states nationwide. The goal, as stated above, is to increase college completion rates by identifying - and hopefully solving - the source of the problem.
Seeking Common Goals
Of course, education performance metrics aren't a new idea. The report notes that 44 states already use longitudinal student unit record data systems. But there's a limit to this data - only 18 of them have connected their K-12 data systems to their college data systems, and only nine of them have linked postsecondary systems to workforce systems.
Furthermore, there's a lot of inconsistency from state to state. Data systems vary in both the type of information collected and methods for reporting, and the federal system is woefully incomplete when it comes to measuring educational attainment. According to the governor's report, the Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) only accounts for 48% of undergraduates at 4-year institutions and 32% of those at 2-year institutions. Missing students include transfer and part-time students, who each account for about 37% of the college population. IPEDS also makes data analysis difficult because it fails to disaggregate remedial and low-income students, two groups who are key to understanding college completion issues.
The report makes the case for a common set of completion metrics and data reporting methods to be implemented by all states, arguing that 'a common set of performance metrics can open the door to improved institutional outcomes: completion, quality and productivity.'
The metrics themselves are split into two categories: outcomes and progress. This allows states to track how institutions are performing against the college completion goals, as well as steps they're making toward reaching those goals.
The NGA's recommended outcome metrics, to be tracked at every school, include:
- Degrees awarded: The number of certificates, associate's and bachelor's degrees awarded annually.
- Graduation rates: Both the number and percentage of degree-seeking students who graduate within normal program time or extended program time, to be disaggregated. The report defines 'normal' as two years for associate's and four years for bachelor's, and extended as three years for associate's and six years for bachelor's.
- Transfer rates: The number and percentage of students each year who transfer from two-year to four-year institutions.
- Time and credits to degree: The average length of time (in years) and the average number of credits that students take to earn a certificate or degree.
These benchmarks measure student progress as they work toward the goals above. Progress metrics are key to identifying problems as they arise and keeping students on track toward graduation. On an institutional level, they can help schools understand where their students - and therefore their programs - are weakest.
Enrollment in remedial education.
High remedial enrollment is a sign that the K-12 system is failing to prepare students for college-level coursework. The NGA therefore recommends that states measure the number and percentage of first-time undergraduates who place into and enroll in remedial English, math or both.
Success beyond remedial education.
The number and percentage of first-time undergrads who complete both a remedial course and then a college-level course in English, math or both.
Success in first-year college courses.
The number and percentage each year of first-time undergrads who complete introductory college-level English and math courses within the first two consecutive academic years.
The number and percentage of first-time undergrads who complete 24 credit hours (for full-time students) or 12 credit hours (for part-time students) in their first academic year.
The number and percentage of entering undergrads who enroll consecutively from fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall at a postsecondary institution.
The percentage of credit hours completed out of those attempted during an academic year.
Although the outcome and progress metrics are the core of the report, the NGA also notes that policymakers need trend data to aid policy and decision making. They offer three basic context metrics that states can implement toward that end:
- Enrollment: Total number of first-time undergraduate students enrolled at postsecondary institutions.
- Completion ratio: The annual ratio of certificates and degrees awarded per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) undergraduates.
- Market penetration: The annual ratio of certificates and degrees awarded relative to the state's population of individuals with a high school diploma.
The report also offers a series of ideas for implementing the metrics. The recommendations include clarifying definitions, collecting college completion data, disaggregating completion metrics and reporting data annually on all measures.
In order to obtain the relevant data, states will need a unique, statewide student identifier, privacy protection for all individually identifiable records, a data auditing system and student-level data for all public higher education institutions on several measures: demographics, enrollment, financial aid, persistence, transfer, course and transcript, remediation, degree completion and graduation.