The Education Department’s announcement on Wednesday that it would soon include part-time and transfer students in its graduation-rate tallies drew cheers from critics who had called for a calculus that more accurately counted who graduates from the nation’s colleges and universities. But the announcement also raised a big question: How exactly will those transfers and part-timers be counted?
This week’s news was especially welcome among community colleges, which have long wanted transfer students to be included in national college-completion figures. Under the current system—in which only full-time, first-time degree- or certificate-seeking students are counted if they complete their programs—community colleges often appear to be laggards in graduating their students. That’s in part because a large proportion of those students attend part time and in part because hundreds of thousands of students every year transfer from a community college to a four-year institution. In so doing, the colleges are fulfilling one of their missions. But they don’t get credit for it.
Now begins the arduous task of figuring out exactly how to capture those transfer and part-time students in the data-collection process. At issue is defining the terms “part-time student” and “transfer student.” How many credits will students have to earn to be counted as part-time students? Will transfer students include those who earned an associate degree or just those who “substantially prepared” for transfer.
The department will also have to sort out how long those students will be tracked in order to determine whether they graduate. Will it be 150 percent of the conventional time to graduation (six years) or perhaps 200 percent of the time (eight years)?
Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the key “lies in the quality of institutional records and databases, and whether the registrars and institutional research can straighten out some of the sloppiness that has accumulated below the surface of the currently simplistic graduation-rate survey reporting.”
“Making sure everybody can do it the same way, and with consistent results,” he says, “will take a few years.”
The Committee on Measures of Student Success has provided the department with some guidance. The advisory committee, which consists of 15 college officials, scholars, and policy experts, was charged last year with helping two-year colleges comply with a new federal requirement that degree-granting institutions report their completion or graduation rates, and also state whether they had alternative ways of measuring student success.
The reporting requirement was included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which also called for the creation of the advisory committee. The committee issued its final report in December, and the Education Department adopted most of its recommendations, including the addition of part-time and transfer students to calculation of national graduation rates. <Read more.>