From Dr. Ben Wither’s UGE Weekly Notes:
Last week’s update (Graduation Rates – Thoughts on the Use of Big Data, UK’s Recent Improvement and Impact on the Commonwealth, 24 February 2015) focused on several readings covering graduation rates and degree attainment. There are several different databases available which may help understand these different, though related measures of institutional effectiveness and higher education policy. The take-away from those readings is that while UK has made progress in the last few years (reaching all-time highs in the number of degrees awarded and graduation rate percentages) the Commonwealth of Kentucky still has ways to go before it reaches national averages in degree attainment.
Another perspective on the challenges we face as a campus and in the state can be found in an interesting article published last year in the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss (higher education reporter and blogger for the Post). This contribution explores the link between graduation rates, size of the campus endowment, and the number of low income students an institution serves. She cites a study from the US Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid (“Measure Twice: The Impact on Graduation Rate of Serving Pell Grant Recipients”) that identifies the “largest factor impacting graduation rates … is the proportion of Pell Grant recipients on the campus.”
Strauss argues that “the graduation rate is clearly an index of admissions risk — universities with the highest graduation rates are those that have huge applicant pools and so they can take only very few of their applicants, and those students are almost all academically very capable and financially stable if not wealthy.” She’s highly critical of the concept of “undermatching… a theory that ‘high-achieving low income’ students should choose only elite or “competitive” colleges and universities instead of the often-local institutions that serve low-income students in large numbers.” She concludes that “Colleges that enroll large numbers of low income students take huge risks, believing as a matter of mission and social justice that we can make a difference in their lives. We know that these students progress through school in very different ways from more traditional students. We do not consider these students a failure if they do not complete degrees on a traditional timetable.”
For the last three years UK an average of just over 24% of our undergraduate students are Pell-eligible (according to HANA/Tableau Demographic workbooks available to me.) Given the number of low-income students as well as middle-income students with high financial need on campus, we will need to look more closely at these challenges, and perhaps — as Patricia McGuire argued in Diverse Issues in Higher Education — develop some new measures of student success, as we seek to improve graduation rates and reach the state’s educational attainment goals.
Benjamin C. Withers, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History
Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education
University of Kentucky