University Leaders Warn that Relying on Federal Graduation Rate Would Provide Students with Incomplete, Misleading Information
Washington, DC – Presidents and chancellors representing more than 360 colleges and universities today urged U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to permit a link to the Student Achievement Measure (SAM) on the administration’s forthcoming college transparency tool. The university leaders are concerned with the misleading limitations of the federal graduation rate data and methodology. In a letter sent to Duncan, the presidents and chancellors detailed how SAM provides a more comprehensive measure of student progress and graduation.
The university leaders applauded the Department of Education’s commitment to providing students and their families with key, accessible information on institutions. But the presidents and chancellors feel that the basic purpose of the new tool would be undermined if the federal rate is the only measure of graduation. The federal graduation rate is incomplete and often misleading because it fails to account for the outcomes of transfer and part-time students and those who attend multiple institutions. SAM accounts for the progress and success of those students. With 575 post-secondary institutions already participating, SAM is tracking the progress and success of over 570,000 students more than the federal government’s measure.
The letter to Duncan is from 210 leaders of colleges, universities, and university systems that collectively represent more than 360 institutions. They wrote to Secretary Duncan that, “We strongly support and encourage the inclusion of a dedicated link within the new tools that would allow institutions the option to link to their SAM data and provide additional information on the success of their students. Doing so would help ensure the integrity and reliability of the new consumer information and tools.”
The federal graduation rate only tracks completion rates for students who enroll full-time and then start and finish at their first college or university, failing to capture more than one-third of college students who transfer as well as those who attend part-time. Under the federal rate calculations, a full-time student who transfers essentially counts as a dropout at his or her original institution and the school to which that student transfers doesn’t receive any credit if that student graduates. Under the current federal methodology, President Obama, who attended Occidental College as an undergraduate before transferring and graduating from Columbia University, would have been classified as a non-graduate, or dropout, at his original institution and would not have been counted at his second institution.
Given that the significant limitations of the federal graduation rate are not widely understood by the public, the university leaders urged Duncan to allow institutions to elect to have a direct link to their SAM data from the forthcoming transparency tools. SAM is a voluntary web-based tool that allows institutions to detail the progress and completion of full-time, part-time, and transfer students, as well as those who enroll in multiple institutions.
“Any tool to measure the graduation rate of students and the performance of the colleges and universities they attend is only as valuable as the data behind it,” said State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. “More students transfer and attend college part-time today than ever before, and their success must be counted. While the Department of Education’s efforts to provide performance data is commendable, the current data set used is misleading because it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Student Achievement Measure is a comprehensive, accurate tool that should be used by institutions of higher education nationwide as we all seek to give the general public the transparency and accountability measures it deserves. As we collectively work to increase college completion across the country, it is imperative that the Department broaden the use of SAM.”
Timothy White, Chancellor of the California State University system, which has 23 campuses, added, “It’s important that students and others who use the Department of Education’s new transparency tools get the full story on the progress and completion rates at each institution. The sheer number of college presidents and chancellors reaching out to Secretary Duncan on this issue demonstrates the vast support for ensuring the data is as accurate as possible.”
The Department of Education announced in June that it was going to develop a new set of transparency tools. That effort evolved from an initial idea to develop a college ratings system. In December 2014 the agency released a framework of what a college ratings system could include and mentioned the possible use of SAM, recognizing that the information provided by the federal rate is incomplete, an acknowledgement of the federal graduation rate’s shortcomings.
College and university leaders who would like to add their institution or system’s name to the letter in support of the SAM link can still do so by contacting the SAM Executive Director, Christine Keller.
SAM is a collaborative effort of the six national presidential higher education associations — the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of American Universities (AAU), the American Council of Education (ACE), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).