Does Student Success Stop at Our Gates?
by Micheal Torrens, Director of Institutional Research and Accreditation, Utah State University
As the director of institutional research and accreditation at Utah State University (USU), I’ve had a lot of time to work on, and think about, student success. Among a host of measures and indicators, I believe that there is wide agreement that graduation rates are a gold standard of success. Of course, there are a variety of ways to interpret student success based on degree attainment (e.g. “intended degree” vs. “achieved degree;” time-to-graduation/efficiency discussions, etc.), but there is not much dispute that this is a broad area where there should be almost perfect overlap between students’ and institutions’ goals and measurement of success.
Unfortunately, the current federal definition of “graduation rate” has created a set of perverse incentives. The most widely used measures of success, graduation rates at 100 percent and 150 percent of time, only count graduations for students that start and complete at the same institution. These are the rates that are used for almost all major ranking systems (e.g. U.S. News & World Report), they are used for state-level management and performance funding, and they are the most widely published federal statistics (e.g. IPEDS, College Navigator, etc.). Given that – according to National Student Clearinghouse data – 37 percent of today’s students transfer at least once, it strikes me that this is wrong and in desperate need of re-thinking and correction.
What does this set of incentives mean for public institutions in most states? I can tell you my experience from conferences, meeting rooms, and hall-way conversations: Discussions of how to “shape the class” to maximize 150 percent graduation rates. How to keep high-risk students or potential transfer students “out of the cohort.” Concerns about “incentives” that might encourage transfer of first-time, full-time students to other institutions. This has been of particular interest to me as I’ve had a chance to talk with institutions that have joined, or are considering joining, the Interstate Passport Network.
Two-year institutions are almost universally enthusiastic. They understand that some, perhaps many, of their students will transfer out short of completing their Associates degree, and they intuitively understand the benefits that Interstate Passport’s block transfer of general education learning outcomes provides for those students. Four-year institutions, on the other hand, are frequently less enthusiastic. Given the current state of assessment discussions at most four-year institutions, many are quick to understand and support the idea of measuring and transferring learning outcomes (vs. relying upon course titles, descriptions, syllabi, etc.), but then comes the inevitable question: Can we just accept Passports without having to issue them; won’t this encourage students to transfer away from our institution? I would like to convince you that this is wrong, and short-sighted in a couple of ways.
First, the discussion of student success is advancing rapidly at the state and federal levels, and it is easy for me to envision that we will be looking “beyond our college gate” within the next ten years. Non-profit and higher-ed supported initiatives, like Student Achievement Measure, are already looking beyond transfer to measure and credit subsequent enrollment and graduation at institutions other than the starting one. Recent articles in the New York Times, Forbes, and other publications suggest that there is a growing focus on the need for a better definition. The data on student graduation across institutions is already available from the National Student Clearinghouse, and it is getting more assertive about publishing those results nationally.
Second, my experience at USU suggests that that concern about the Interstate Passport encouraging transfer away from four-year institutions is overblown. Each institution is unique, but at USU – Utah’s land-grant public research institution – we have a fairly high proportion of undergraduates who get married before graduation. For students married at different ages, it’s not unusual for one spouse to need to leave campus to start work in a different area of the state, or a different state, while the other spouse continues to work on his or her degree. The transferability of credits from our institution to another, in those cases, has practically no impact upon the decision to move. A shortsighted view that only counts a student’s success while they are within our four walls is the exact opposite of what’s needed, and this is where I see the Interstate Passport program as a tremendous support for all of our students’ success.
For students that must transfer (because of job, family, or circumstances), for students that want to transfer (because of opportunity, fit, or changes in life plans), for members of the armed forces studying at our institutions (and subject to deployment or transfer), the transfer loss of credits, time, and money can be devastating. In some cases, it ends the dream of achieving a degree entirely. The Interstate Passport program is one tool to combat those losses, and to support our students’ success, no matter where they land. That is why I support it.