It’s Time to Stop Calculating Graduation Rates

Here is an op-ed I wrote recently for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s Time to Stop Calculating Graduation Rates

By Walter M. Kimbrough February 23, 2020 Premium

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

In 2004, when I first became a college president, it was at a historically black college with low graduation rates — 16 percent over all and 11 percent for men. There was (and still is) a lot of criticism of historically black colleges and universities for not getting students across the finish line. With more than two-thirds of HBCU students eligible for Pell Grants, and with Pell recipients generally having lower graduation rates, the numbers aren’t surprising.

But at my former institution, with a focus on recruiting Pell-eligible students who really wanted to embrace college, we raised the rate, by 2012, above the national black-­student average of 40 percent. Raising completion rates of low-­income and first-generation black students has long been one of the things I have been most proud of.

But 15 years after assuming that presidency, I have come around to a new viewpoint: Graduation rates are meaningless, and we should stop keeping track of them.

Ever since the Obama administration debuted the White House College Scorecard, in 2013, I have loudly complained about the unfairness of presenting numbers without context. The administration tried to simplify a statistic that has a tremendous number of variables, and then created a way that families can compare numbers to come to conclusions that are often incorrect.

What the scorecard and similar sites do is create a number salad — confusing figures thrown together randomly, so that they have no real meaning at all.

A simple analogy might help. Two people visit the doctor: One weighs 175 pounds, the other 200. Is that enough to determine which one is healthiest? Of course not. If we simply used the body-mass-index calculator as a proxy for health, we would have to factor in height, gender, and age. Deeper analysis would include family history, level of physical activity, eating habits, etc. This makes sense to most people.

But for graduation rates, we see one institution at 75 percent, another at 40 percent, and people assume the first is a better college. We ignore that rates are affected by preparation of students, socioeconomic status, race, full-time status, etc. If you compare a college where 20 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants and 80 percent are white, versus one that is 80 percent Pell-eligible and 20 percent white, then comparing their raw graduation rates would be like judging health based on weight alone.

Most students and their families don’t have the time or attention span for a meaningful understanding of graduation rates, so the simplistic use of those numbers only harms colleges with rates that people consider to be low. Imagine the frustration I experienced in having to explain to person after person in 2013 that the 24-percent graduation rate at my current institution, Dillard University, posted on the College Scorecard, had been based on the freshman cohort of 2005, which enrolled just days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall here in New Orleans.

Every time I told folks the context, they immediately understood. But on the scorecard, there was not even an asterisk with an explanation, for example, for a family in Philadelphia who wouldn’t make the connection between Katrina and our rate. I’m still mad about that.

My final straw with graduation rates came recently. The Department of Justice pressured the National Association for College Admission Counseling to eliminate several provisions from its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, claiming they violated antitrust laws. The department basically said that colleges should feel free to offer incentives for early admissions, recruit students well past the May 1 decision day, and recruit them even after they enrolled somewhere else. The department, continuing this administration’s emphasis on deregulation, thinks students (or customers, in this view) aren’t able to get the lowest price because a professional association has a code of ethics.

Recent articles have highlighted the new initiatives colleges are beginning to employ — win free room and board if you make your deposit by March 6, or deposit by February 1 to receive an additional $2,000 scholarship! The whole notion of admissions counseling is dead. We might as well hire used-car salespeople.

In an era when we are encouraging students to keep chasing deals every year, is there any question what this is going to do to graduation rates?

We’re now in an era when we are encouraging students to chase the money, the best “deal,” and to keep chasing deals every year. Is there any question what this is going to do to graduation rates?

According to a recent EAB report, 31 percent of students entering four-year institutions transfer. The report further indicates that there might be an appetite among students to be poached, saying “many freshmen do feel ambivalent about their choice of school — when surveyed, less than half say they would definitely choose the same school if they could do it over.”

In an era when people are less committed than ever — to their jobs, to getting married — why would we expect the traditional 18-year-old freshman, who has been wooed with all the bells, whistles, perks, and prizes, to actually commit to a college for four years and graduate? We’ve entered a swirling-on-steroids age in college statistics. Just as in Major League Baseball, figures now deserve disclaimers because the eras are different.

So I don’t want to hear any more conversations about graduation rates. I don’t even want to send the number to Ipeds. We’ve created a system now that encourages families to chase funds rather than fit, where we are indoctrinating a generation to be noncommitters (and for a price).

Let’s stop calculating graduation rates. It’s just a number. A meaningless number.

Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store