College Graduation Rates: Who's Counted - and Who Isn't
The government tracks graduation rates for college students—and these data collection systems are designed to track the progress of the “traditional” student. That’s someone who attends college straight out of high school and either continues until graduation or drops out and doesn’t return.
However, there are millions of students—approximately 2.4 million out of a total of 5 million students starting college in 2009, according to the US Department of Education—who don’t fit the description of a traditional college student. These people are not included in national tracking of student graduation rates. Here’s an overview of the types of students who aren’t counted—and whose graduations stay invisible to the federal government.
A large number of students who attend college do so on a part-time basis. But census data doesn’t count their graduation rates. Part-time students are often adult students who are juggling college, family, and work obligations, or perhaps
college-age students who work full-time or care for families while
they attend. Members of the military may also attend school part-time
either during or between deployments. And many students attend
part-time because it’s the only way they can afford college.
There are many reasons why students would choose to
attend school part-time, and they may take longer to earn a degree—but
many graduate and should be counted.
The path through college and toward a degree isn’t linear for many people—and our graduation numbers should reflect that.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article* citing the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, approximately a third of students who started attending college in 2006 transferred during their college career. That’s a large percentage. Many transfer students attend online two-year schools before transferring to four-year institutions, often to keep costs down while earning a degree. These are often traditional students who attend college after high school, as well as nontraditional students. However, transfer students still are not counted among graduating students.
Those who drop out and re-enroll later
In addition, adult students who have earned credits in the past and are returning to school after a long hiatus are not counted toward graduation rates. Neither are students who take shorter breaks. These students could include Mormons who leave college to serve a mission; members of the military who take a break to serve overseas; and students who take breaks to work, care for family members, or handle other unexpected obligations. Those who return to school and graduate after such breaks are typically not included in graduation data.
In short, any student whose academic career was interrupted in any way doesn’t count toward national graduation numbers. This is detrimental to public knowledge about college graduation rates—because without numbers applying to non-traditional students, we don’t have a full picture of graduation rates in this country. Nontraditional students may include adults who return to college after many years or decades; traditional students who choose to transfer or take a year-long hiatus; members of the military; those who leave to fulfill religious obligations; and those who work part-time while managing a job or taking care of a family.
Graduation numbers should include these students, who often face special challenges in earning their degrees. Including them would paint a more complete picture of the state of college education today—one that includes a significant portion of the student body on a national level. The path through college and toward a degree isn’t linear for many people—and our graduation numbers should reflect that.
*The Chronicle of Higher Education: Students Who Don’t Count
The Chronicle of Higher Education: Do Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?
The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Student Swirl
The Chronicle of Higher Education: For-Profits Develop More Forgiving Measures to Tally Graduation
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