What is this measure, and why is this measure important?
This measure builds upon the retention indicator to provide a more complete picture of the educational progress of college students in the United States. The majority of data in this indicator reflect the proportion of first-time, full-time associate degree- or certificate-seeking students who graduate within 150 percent of normal program length (i.e., three years). In addition, four-year graduation rates (200 percent of normal program length) are available for the first time and are included in this indicator. Graduation rates are calculated by aggregating, across institutions in a given state and/or sector, the institution-level adjusted entering cohorts and the number of students from these cohorts who graduate within the appropriate time frame. Estimates therefore can be interpreted as a percentage of students in the given sector and/or state.
The measure is central to the commission’s goal because of the role that two-year colleges play in the higher education system. This role may become increasingly important because of the changing demographics described in the introduction to this section and the economic challenges faced by a growing number of Americans.
The data are disaggregated by state, race/ethnicity and institutional control (i.e., public, private not-for-profit, private for-profit) to help states understand the differential outcomes across groups and to illustrate the state’s overall graduation rate as a function of the varying performance of students in different types of institutions.
What are the policy issues associated with this measure?
Addressing socioeconomic, racial and ethnic inequalities in higher education requires persistent and meaningful efforts by states to provide postsecondary access and opportunity to the steadily growing numbers of undereducated and underrepresented minorities. Beyond the moral imperative to achieve equity among populations of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, there are economic reasons for doing so.
Policymakers should consider both the challenges and opportunities facing two-year colleges in light of current economic conditions. Many adults are returning to the educational pipeline in order to build skills and increase future job opportunities. At the same time, budget cuts threaten funding in this vital sector.
Graduation rates have been a part of the higher education landscape since Congress passed the Student Right-to-Know Act in 1990. They are the primary national, standardized measure of postsecondary outcomes. However, policymakers should consider the significance and meaning of high or low graduation rates. The appropriate context should be taken into account when considering whether persistence indicators such as graduation rates can or should be used as accountability measures. Institutions vary in their missions, as well as in the composition of entering students — factors that should be recognized when interpreting estimates, particularly at the institutional level. Institutions that aim to educate low-income, first-generation, traditionally underserved students will face substantially different enrollment, retention and graduation challenges compared to institutions that attract most of their students from the top of the nation’s high school graduating classes. Policymakers should seek to understand the benefits and limitations of graduation rates in order to better serve all constituents.
Where are we now?
As of 2010, 29.9 percent of first-time, full-time associate degree- or certificate-seeking students in the nation’s two-year colleges graduate within three years (Figure 9.2a). Graduation rates vary by sector, such that 20.4 percent of these students in public two-year colleges graduate within three years, compared to 51.1 percent at private not-for-profit colleges. Public institutions account for nearly four out of five first-time, full-time students at two-year colleges and thus shape the overall estimates.
Three-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students at two-year colleges vary by race/ethnicity and sector (Figures 9.2c, 9.2g–9.2k). Asian American students have the highest three-year graduation rate (33.6 percent), followed by Hispanic students (33.4 percent), white students (29.5 percent), American Indian students (25.6 percent) and African American students (25.3 percent). When disaggregated by state, the three-year graduation rate at two-year colleges ranges from 9.3 percent in Rhode Island to 52.5 percent in Florida (Figure 9.2d).
When comparing three-year graduation rates against four-year graduation rates, it is clear that the additional year affords a substantial number of students the opportunity to complete their degrees. For example, while 29.9 percent of first-time, full-time associate degree- or certificate-seeking students who entered in fall 2005 graduate within three years (Figure 9.2a), 34.2 percent of these students graduate within four years (Figure 9.2l). When disaggregated by state, the four-year graduation rate ranges from 13.4 percent in Rhode Island to 62.6 percent in South Dakota (Figure 9.2l).
Two-year graduation rates of degree- and certificate-seeking students at two-year colleges have increased from 16.4 percent in 2008 to 19.8 percent in 2010. Two-year graduation rates have increased over this time period for all sectors (Figure 9.2q). When disaggregated by state, the two-year graduation rate ranges from 2.2 percent in Rhode Island to 57 percent in South Dakota (Figure 9.2r).
When interpreting this measure, what should be kept in mind?
Because of the manner in which data are collected in the IPEDS graduation survey, researchers are unable to separate associate degree-seeking students from certificate-seeking students. One concern is that the normal time to completion varies across certificate programs, whereas it is more standardized for associate programs. Given the emphasis of the commission goal on obtaining an associate degree or higher, data would ideally be presented for associate degree-seeking students only. This presents a challenge for using this indicator to examine issues related to degree attainment among students at two-year colleges.
The limitations of these graduation rates deserve consideration. For example, as was the case with the previous indicator, graduation rates are based solely on degree completion within the institution in which one enrolled as a full-time, first-time student. In addition, they do not reflect part-time students, students who begin college in terms other than fall, or incoming transfer students who go on to successfully complete a degree. In fact, successful transfer students count against the original institution’s graduation rate (which also influences estimates at the state level) and do nothing to benefit the receiving institution. Many policymakers and researchers have called for reforms to standardize the way that transfer rates are measured and reported by states and institutions. Because of the lack of the standardization of transfer rates, this indicator is not yet available to help contextualize the nation’s success in increasing completion rates.
It is also important to consider that graduation rates are associated with many other factors not directly addressed in these data (e.g., first-generation status, academic preparation, socioeconomic background, adjustment to college, etc.). In addition, many students take longer than the traditional two-to-three year window to graduate, including students who begin as full-time students but spend most of their experience attending part time and students who must work while attending college. The inclusion of four-year graduation rates in this year’s report is meant to address some of these limitations and provide a more complete picture of degree completion.
Recent changes in the rules regarding maintenance, collection, and reporting of federal data on race and ethnicity should be considered when interpreting data in this indicator. Institutions must now collect these data using a two-question format, in which the first assesses whether the individual is Hispanic/Latino (ethnicity), and the second evaluates whether the respondent is one or more of the following races: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or white. In addition, Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander was separated into two categories and a reporting category “two or more races” was introduced.
In the most recent graduation survey, institutions had the option to report under old or new race/ethnicity categories. IPEDS then derived a total, where the new category overlapped with the old. The data contained in this indicator reflect these derived categories. It is possible that the addition of “two or more races” in the new system changed how institutions reported students, which raises questions about the ability to compare estimates from the 2008 survey to those from previous or future years (when institutions will have fully transitioned to the new system).
Finally, some estimates are based on a very small number of students, particularly when disaggregated by state by sector by ethnicity. Readers are advised to consider the number of institutions behind various estimates as well as the number of students who underlie these estimates. In some cases, institutional responses are altered by NCES to protect the privacy of students. Thus, the publicly available survey data may not reflect the exact value reported by institutions. The impact of this likely varies across figures within this indicator. For example, there is likely a greater impact on American Indian or Alaska Native estimates than there is for white students, since a greater number of institutional responses regarding American Indian or Alaska Natives may have been altered by NCES. Similarly, estimates based on the cumulative responses of many small colleges may be impacted more than those based on the cumulative responses of larger colleges.