Graduation Rates – Thoughts on the Use of Big Data, UK’s Recent Improvement and Impact on the Commonwealth

From Dr. Ben Withers’ UGE Weekly Update:

Thumbnail of CHE chart of graduation rates by state 2015This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education published an interactive state-by-state breakdown of six-year graduation rates.  The bar chart summarizes the results of a report Completing College: A State-Level View of Student Attainment Rates on the rates by which Kentucky’s students graduated from their “starting institution,” from another institution or had graduated also from a 2-year institution. By tracking students who completed their college degree in another institution (even in another state) added substantially to the overall completion rates.

This report used information gathered by the National Student Clearing House (NCH):  an independent non-profit group that assists higher education institutions and the student loan industry. It collects enrollment and degree attainment data that is made available to participating institutions (but not usually to the general public).  The Chronicle chart provides an interesting glimpse at this information, covering three years of data for four-year public colleges, from 2013 through 2015. You can sort data by several demographic and enrollment categories, including gender, age, and full- or part-time status. Looking at all student types, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has made gains in the overall percentage of students who have graduated (improving from 54.7% in 2013 to 57.9% in the 2015 data) and in the percentage of students graduation from the institution of their initial enrollment (42.2% in 2013 to 44.7%). However, in both areas our state is still below national averages.

UK has contributed to the progress that the state has made in this key area of graduation rates as well as educational attainment. Over the last five years, UK’s four-year graduation rate has increased from 30.8% (2006 cohort) to 38.1% (2010 cohort). Six-year graduation rates have also improved to reach all-time highs of 60.4% (2007 cohort) and 60.1% (2008). These higher percentages, combined with the increased size of first-ear cohorts, mean that each year UK sets records each year for the total number of undergraduates receiving degrees and certificates. The latest data on the UK Institutional Research website shows this steady increase, as we surpassed the 4000 mark for degrees awarded in 2013. That increase is good for the Commonwealth, adding to our efforts in improving college attainment, though the latest figures from the CPE shows that Kentucky still lags behind the national average in terms of the percentage of our population over 25 with a bachelor’s degree (which is not surprising given the NCH data, above).

Cover of College Graduation Rates report by ACEEducational attainment is an important policy goal at the state and federal level; graduation rates are one measure of institutional effectiveness that shows how campuses may be helping reach that goal. However, educational attainment and graduation rates are not the same thing. The American Council on Education (ACE) has produced a very useful overview that explains the difference while focusing on the  different ways graduation rates can be measured in College Graduation Rates: Behind the Numbers. Published in 2010, the report explains that graduation rates are a relatively new way of measuring institutional effectiveness.

When I discussed UK’s graduation rates in the paragraph above, I was using figures calculated according the Graduation Rate Survey (GRS) that is part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is a set of federally mandated surveys collected by the US Department of Education (DoE). In addition to the GRS, DoE also produces the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Survey. Other sources of information are the National Clearing House (see above) and agencies in the several states. Behind the Numbers explains clearly and concisely what the advantages and disadvantages of each survey are.

For example, the GRS focuses on full-time, first-year cohort enrollment. This gives a good sense of how institutions are performing annually, allowing  for institutional comparisons as well as the ability to look at institutional performance by student characteristics of race and gender. Disadvantages are that because it is based only on first-year, first-time students and is institution-focused, a GRS-based graduation rate accounts for only 52% of college enrollment nationwide (missing part-time, returning, and most students who transfer from one baccalaureate degree campus to another).

GRS also does not allow analysts to disaggregate by income and, as we know, family income and unmet student need are ever important factors in student success. NCH data is more inclusive, capturing 93% of students whether they are part-time, full-time, transfer, or returning. Disadvantages are that NCH is a voluntary reporting system (unlike the federal GRS), is not usually publicly available, and has limited demographic information.

As our campus discussion of graduation rates continues, I encourage you to look at the Behind the Numbers report to better understand the options for information available to us.

Benjamin C. Withers, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History
Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education
University of Kentucky
(859) 257-3027


About UK Student and Academic Life

Undergraduate Education is now recreated within the Division of Student and Academic Life in the Provost's Office at the University of Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Diversity, Retention, Student Success, Transfer and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Graduation Rates – Thoughts on the Use of Big Data, UK’s Recent Improvement and Impact on the Commonwealth

  1. Pingback: More on Graduation Rates in Kentucky and at UK | The Bluegrass Blade

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