The percent of graduates who complete a degree in four years from start to finish is not the same thing as a four-year graduation rate.
The former measure is a backward-looking measure. It looks at all the graduates in a given year and then checks back to see what percentage started at the institution within the previous four years.
The latter measure, a four-year graduation rate, is a forward-looking measure in that it starts with a group or cohort of similar students (in this case, first-time in college, full-time at first enrollment) and checks to see what percentage of these students completed their degree within four years.
Why does this matter?
Four years ago, a Small Liberal Arts College (a private, nonprofit SLAC) announced a new commitment to (certain) students: The college announced this week it will waive tuition costs for any additional courses needed to complete a degree if a student isn’t able to graduate in four years, provided certain requirements are met. The article goes on to report, based on the announcement on the college’s website, that 95% of graduates complete their degree within four years and that this is a much higher rate than the four-year completion rate for all graduates at private colleges (almost 80%) and for public institutions (below 50%). The source of the data is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).
In fact, one of the financial aid pages on the College’s website goes so far as to say this:
Many consider state colleges as having a low sticker price. In reality, once we factor in aid, the final cost isn’t significantly different than a state college. It is also important to note that 90% of our students graduate in four years saving the cost of a 5th year.
The College and NAICU should know better. The comparisons they are making are not appropriate. They are, in fact, deceitful. Note: We should probably be fair to NAICU as we do not know they were complicit in this deceit.
So, what is the real story here?
First, we assume that nearly all students graduating from the College probably do graduate within four-years. It is simply too expensive not do so.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) maintains an excellent website,College Navigator, that is quite useful for finding and comparing colleges. It’s data is based on annual surveys, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), required of all Title IV (federal student aid programs) participating institutions. It reveals that only 49% of all the students at the College starting in the Fall of 2008 graduated in four-years or less. Only 62% graduated within six years.
This is a far cry from 95%.
If the statements on the College’s website are representative of the critical thinking and analysis skills taught at the college, we have a serious problem. I kind of hope these are cynical, deceitful statements of an institution trying to stay afloat. That can be dealt with greater ease than an inability to engage in critical thinking because I just don’t think they understand the problem.
The College seems to be intent on putting the slack into SLAC.
Just as a reminder, here is the Principle of Integrity from Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges:
Integrity, essential to the purpose of higher education, functions as the basic contract defining the relationship between the Commission and each of its member and candidate institutions. It is a relationship in which all parties agree to deal honestly and openly with their constituencies and with one another. Without this commitment, no relationship can exist or be sustained between the Commission and its accredited and candidate institutions.
Integrity in the accreditation process is best understood in the context of peer review, professional judgment by peers of commonly accepted sound academic practice, and the conscientious application of the Principles of Accreditation as mutually agreed upon standards for accreditation. The Commission’s requirements, policies, processes, procedures, and decisions are predicated on integrity.
The Commission on Colleges expects integrity to govern the operation of institutions and for institutions to make reasonable and responsible decisions consistent with the spirit of integrity in all matters. Therefore, evidence of withholding information, providing inaccurate information to the public, failing to provide timely and accurate information to the Commission, or failing to conduct a candid self-assessment of compliance with the Principles of Accreditation and to submit this assessment to the Commission, and other similar practices will be seen as the lack of a full commitment to integrity. The Commission’s policy statement “Integrity and Accuracy in Institutional Representation” gives examples of the application of the principle of integrity in accreditation activities. The policy is not all-encompassing nor does it address all possible situations. (See Commission policy “Integrity and Accuracy in Institutional Representation.”) Failure of an institution to adhere to the integrity principle may result in a loss of accreditation or candidacy.
1.1 The institution operates with integrity in all matters. (Integrity)
(Note: This principle is not addressed by the institution in its Compliance Certification.)