Counting all students: New data offer better view of outcomes for nontraditional college students
Suppose your physician offered you a drug with the explanation, “It worked well for patients who started it under my care, took the maximum dose, and stayed in my practice for six years, but I have no idea what happened to patients who started it elsewhere, took a smaller dose, or left my practice within six years.” Would you feel reassured by such spotty evidence—or a little queasy? Yet these caveats closely resemble those of federal college graduation statistics. That is, they did until the release this month of new data from the U.S. Department of Education. The Outcomes Measures (OM) data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) promise to shine a light on the large proportion of college students who previously were not reflected in existing federal graduation statistics.
Students and their families, policy makers, and colleges themselves need better and more comprehensive graduation statistics like these. More than ever, there is so much at stake for those who pursue higher education. It is hardly news that more education leads to higher salaries. Less well-known is that the earnings differential between workers with and without a bachelor’s degree has been growing for decades. Bachelor’s degree recipients also have higher job satisfaction, better health, and greater happiness than individuals who only completed high school. College graduates also contribute benefits to society. They are more likely to vote, less likely to go to prison, and less likely to receive public assistance. At the same time, the inflation-adjusted price of college has been increasing even after subtracting grant aid. And the growing share of students who finance their education with loans makes it even more crucial that they graduate.
A college’s graduation rate is arguably the most important measure of how well it serves its students, yet until now the available data have been fragmentary. Since the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education has collected from each college the percentage of students who graduated from the that college within a specified period of time for IPEDS. But these institutional graduation rates exclude the large and growing proportion of students who initially enroll part time or in a term other than the fall term or who previously enrolled in a different college. National longitudinal surveys fill in some of these gaps, but these nationally-representative graduation rates cannot be used to measure the performance of individual colleges. More recently, state longitudinal data systems and the National Student Clearinghouse have calculated completion rates including students who transfer colleges. However, these emerging sources do not cover all colleges in the nation.
The OM data address many limitations of these existing sources. In particular, OM includes populations not covered by existing institutional graduation rates, including those students enrolled part time and those students who previously enrolled in postsecondary education. Additionally, statistics include the proportion of students transferring out, which was previously limited to colleges with a transfer-oriented mission. Unlike other sources that track students across colleges, OM data are disseminated annually and reported for each individual campus. Users can calculate values nationally, by state, or by type of college (for example, public research universities or minority-serving institutions).
These new measures are particularly useful for understanding the experiences of nontraditional populations like students at community colleges and for-profit colleges that are not always adequately captured by existing graduation statistics. For example, nearly half of community college students initially attend part time for reasons such as work or family obligations and historically have not been included in federal graduation statistics. The new OM data reveal that at least 18 percent of part time students complete a certificate or associate’s degree at their original institution within 8 years. Even for full time community college students, following students for eight years represents a more realistic time frame for completion because over 60 percent of community college students must complete remedial courses before they can take college-level classes, and many who start full time switch to part time in a later term. Previously, statistics could only tell us that 21.7 percent of full-time, first time community college students completed a certificate or associate’s degree within 3 years and 27.3 percent complete within 4 years. Now, with the inclusion of first-time and non-first-time students, the OM data show that the completion rate for all full time community college students is 31.5 percent after 6 years and 33.5 percent after 8 years. That extra 6.2 percent, now quantifiable with these new data, amounts to nearly 52,000 additional students in the past year whose successful outcomes would not have been captured in the traditional graduation rate metrics.
As might be expected, OM does have its limitations. Non-degree-granting institutions, which offer only certificates that typically require 1 to 2 years, or less, of full time enrollment, are not included. Results are not disaggregated by student characteristics such as race/ethnicity or gender. And not every college has the ability to track every student who leaves without completing. Caveats aside, these data are a valuable new tool for researchers, students and their families, and campus staff. There is now information on student outcomes that cover all students—and, like taking a medication with quantifiable long-term benefits, that is something that you can feel good about.
The authors are from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute based in North Carolina. RTI works with the U.S. Department of Education to collect and disseminate the annual IPEDS data collections.