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Campaign seeks to track college students omitted from federal graduation rates

University Business, July 2018
It has become increasingly difficult for educators and policymakers to get a firm grasp on exactly how many students persist in their education goals because over half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one post-secondary institution, and two-thirds of community college students are enrolled part-time. (Gettyimages.com: drogetnev).
It has become increasingly difficult for educators and policymakers to get a firm grasp on exactly how many students persist in their education goals because over half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one post-secondary institution, and two-thirds of community college students are enrolled part-time. (Gettyimages.com: drogetnev).

The journey to a degree these days has many types of passengers, from full-time enrollees, to transfer students, to those who stop out for a variety of reasons only to re-enroll at a later date.

More than half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one post-secondary institution, and two-thirds of community college students are enrolled part-time, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.

That’s why it has become increasingly difficult for educators and policymakers to get a firm grasp on exactly how many students persist in their education goals.

The widely cited federal graduation rate reports outcomes only for students seeking bachelor’s degrees who start and finish at the same institution.

The remainder of students are not included and, because of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which effectively bans the collection of student-level data, there’s no way to reflect outcomes for a large number of part-time and transfer students.

“With more than half of bachelor’s recipients transferring before earning their degree and nearly one-quarter attending part-time, there is an enormous data gap,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

SAM wants you

In May, colleges and universities across the country began signing on to an effort to help fill in the blanks by sharing individual students’ stories on social media using the hashtag #CountAllStudents. Its website shares stories of 2018 graduates who transferred or started school part-time—but who will be missing from the federal graduation rate.

“Each and every student missing from their institution’s federal graduation rate has a story,” says McPherson.

“Some students attend part-time so they can also care for a family member, others transfer because they serve our country in the military, and some transfer from two-year programs to four-year ones in order to earn a specific degree. All students deserve to be counted.”

But more than that, #CountAllStudents aims to encourage colleges and universities to participate in the voluntary Student Achievement Measure project.

Launched in 2013 as an alternative to the federal graduation rate, SAM tracks student movement across colleges and universities to provide a more complete picture of undergraduate student progress and completion. Currently some 630 institutions have joined SAM—just a fraction of the 5,300 postsecondary institutions in the country today.

“If all institutions in the United States reported student outcomes using the Student Achievement Measure,” says the project’s executive director, Elise Miller, “outcomes for nearly 2 million more students would be counted—students that the federal graduation rate either misses entirely or counts as failures.”