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Graduation rates and their effects

Graduation rates and their effects

(May 13, 2014)

In just a few days, we are expecting to confer degrees to 818 students, making the Spring Class of 2014 the largest in McNeese's history.  This is a great achievement and one that we can all be proud of whether we are students, alumni, committed faculty, staff members, or valued community supporters. But suppose I told you that half of these graduates may not be counted toward McNeese's graduation rate, which can affect monetary resources that we receive from the state.  Allow me to explain.

Graduation rates are routinely used as a yardstick to measure performance and to allocate financial resources. In Louisiana, universities gain increased autonomy and flexibility by meeting statewide performance goals, including annual increases in graduation rates, as outlined in the LA GRAD (Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas) Act.

The graduation rate statistic is a decent measure of success for private, elite liberal arts colleges where students tend to be traditional, residential students who are not commuting to campus.  However, with regional comprehensive universities like McNeese where we have large numbers of commuters, transfer students, and non-traditional students, the graduation rate statistic can be extremely misleading.

Approximately 52% of the diplomas I confer at each graduation ceremony do not actually count as "successes" with regard to McNeese's graduation rate. This is because 40% of our graduates are transfer students, and 12% take more than six years to finish their degrees. 

Consider the following analogy:  Suppose there are two trains running from station A to station D.  One train is a commuter train with local stops at stations B and C before reaching the destination at station D.  Each passenger on the commuter train who boards at station A receives a red ticket.  Passengers boarding at station B receive an orange ticket.  Passengers boarding at station C receive a yellow ticket.  The other train is an express, which takes passengers directly from point A to point D.  Everyone boarding the express train receives a red ticket.  Now suppose both trains run entirely full, the only difference being that the commuter train stops for passengers to stop off and hop on at each local stop. 
Then suppose a federal regulator is standing at station D to determine which train had the best "graduation rate."  The regulator announces that the calculation method will be as follows:  the denominator will be the number of passengers who boarded the train at station A and the numerator will be the number of passengers who arrived at station D holding a red ticket.  Passengers with orange tickets and yellow tickets will not be counted.  McNeese is more like the commuter train, with a large number of students transferring in and transferring out, and also stopping out for a time to work, because of the regional, non-traditional nature of our economy. 
So you see, students who transfer into McNeese and earn degrees here do not count toward the graduation rate.  At the same time, we are also penalized for students who transfer out of McNeese to graduate from other institutions.  So if 100 students transfer from McNeese to other universities for a variety of personal and professional reasons, they are treated as McNeese "failures."  And even if we are successful in attracting 100 transfer students to McNeese to replace the ones who left, we are not allowed to count those who transfer in as "successes."  The inflow of transfer students is simply not counted in the statistic.
In the same way, students who must leave McNeese for a temporary amount of time but then return to finish their degrees, yet take more than six years to do so, also do not count toward our graduation statistic.  So students who may need to take a sabbatical from their education to work, take care of families, or other personal and professional reasons will not be reflected in the graduation rate once they return to McNeese and earn their diplomas.
I propose that a better statistic would be to use a simple "degree productivity index" instead of the graduation rate statistic.  The denominator would be the total number of students who enter McNeese in all degree programs in a given year, and the numerator would be the number of diplomas awarded by McNeese four years later.  If we used this productivity index as a reflection of our graduation successes, McNeese would score at a level equal to or better than the productivity of most universities in the nation.