News & Media

Snapshot 20 & the Student Achievement Measure Show the Promise of Better Data

By: Christine Keller, Vice President, Research and Policy Analysis, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

The federal graduation rate is a number that is widely cited on the College Scorecard and other government transparency sites as well as in college rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report. While data on student completion is clearly important for both policymakers and consumers, the figure most often used is deeply flawed: it only counts the graduation rates of full-time students who start and finish at their first institution.

In other words, transfer students aren’t just missing from the federal figure, they’re counted as failures. Over 50 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one institution before they graduate yet they are shockingly not counted as successful in the federal graduation rate.

While colleges used to be comprised primarily of students who just months earlier had graduated from high school and would go on to complete their degree in four years, that’s no longer the case. Over two-thirds of today’s college students are over the age of 25 and 20 percent are employed full-time while enrolled. One in four students has children and 37 percent are enrolled part-time. As colleges’ student bodies evolve so must the data that tracks the rates of their progress and success.

To that end, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center today released Snapshot 20: National Success and Progress Rates, which helps paint a much more complete picture of progress and success for all students, not just those who finish at their first institution. Modeled after the national Student Achievement Measure (SAM) initiative, Snapshot 20 shows, by sector, how many students graduated from their original institution or from another school as well as the percentage of students still enrolled either at their original institution or elsewhere. This is far more detailed and nuanced information than the federal government is able to report due to the congressional ban on collecting national student-level data.

While Snapshot 20 reports progress and outcome rates by sector, SAM is able to do so for individual institutions. With the release of Snapshot 20, institutions participating in SAM can now benchmark themselves against the national average for their particular sector. Until now, there has been no way for institutions to measure themselves against their peers beyond the incomplete and misleading federal graduation rate.

SAM is an extraordinary step forward in the pursuit of better and more complete data on student progress and success. Nearly 600 universities are participating in SAM, which is measuring the outcomes for 600,000 more students at these institutions than the federal government, including those for transfer students and those who attend part-time.

SAM is an extremely important transparency and accountability tool. However, it’s clear that we need to be able to measure and compare all colleges and universities, not just SAM participants.

Congress should take a close look at Snapshot 20 and SAM to see what a difference just a little more data can provide. As Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, it should lift the ban on a national student-level data collection system so that the transparency of SAM is extended universally across higher education.

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