T’Ship 101: Going Beyond Graduation Rates

By Maurice C. Taylor    //    Volume 20,  Number 2   //    March/April 2012

President Obama wants America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and policy makers throughout the country are focused on improving graduation rates. But taken alone, the raw collection and reporting of such data may in fact misrepresent the learning that takes place at various institutions. Understanding the context surrounding graduation rates can help boards take a more comprehensive approach in measuring institutional performance.

A number of factors influence graduation rates, including high-school preparation, college readiness, family finances, and others. The graduation rates at different colleges and universities reflect the characteristics of the entering students, with the most-selective institutions enrolling fewer at-risk students, and open-admissions institutions enrolling the most.

I’ve seen that firsthand at Morgan State University, a public HBCU, where I am a vice president, and at Juniata College, a private liberalarts institution, where I am a board member. The six-year graduation rate at Morgan State is only 32 percent, compared to 75 percent at Juniata. Financial realities play a key role in how long it takes Morgan State students to complete their degrees and, indeed, in their ability to complete their degrees at all. Far more students at Morgan State, for instance, receive financial aid and qualify for Pell Grants than do at Juniata. Morgan State is, nonetheless, a leader in the nation in degrees awarded to African Americans and first among all HBCUs in the total number of Fulbright scholarship recipients.

Educating racially and socioeconomically diverse students is a core value of Morgan State’s mission. Rather than abandoning that mission in exchange for higher graduation rates, Morgan State has sought to provide instructional programs that fit the specific needs of the types of students it serves.

One such program is Freshmen, Families and Finances, a partnership with PNC Bank, the Maryland Campus Compact, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), whereby students from low-income families learn about financial literacy and how to help their families qualify for basic banking services like checking and savings accounts. Although the university’s overall goal with this program is to improve retention and graduation rates, students (and their families) who participate in the program acquire valuable lessons in basic personal finance that are important to their overall success.

While I agree that boards should be mindful of graduation rates, they should put them in context—comparing the actual rate with the expected graduation rate of the student body as well as to the actual and expected rates of peer and aspirant institutions. Boards should also insist that data collected are used to document the progress their institutions are making in providing a quality education to all students. For example, the audit and institutional assessment committee of Morgan State’s board is engaged in the systematic assessment of data to: 1) promote academic quality and student success, 2) understand and improve the student experience, and 3) support resource requests for faculty, facilities, and student programs.

Morgan State looks at not only graduation rates but also measures of learning like portfolios compiled over the course of undergraduate study, pre-course and post-course tests designed to assess mastery of content, proficiency examinations, and of course cumulative grade-point averages. The primary objective of such assessments is to demonstrate that Morgan State students are acquiring knowledge, skills, and competencies consistent with the university’s mission, vision, core values, and strategic goals.

The first principle in the AGB Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality is that the governing board should commit to ensuring educational quality. The graduation rate is but one measure of the extent to which learning is taking place on campus. The long-term interests of colleges and universities are best served when they focus instead on providing programs that truly fit their students’ learning needs.

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