A collection of white papers that examine issues involved in effectively measuring college success was released today. This project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation , called Context for Success, included a paper by myself and HERI Director Sylvia Hurtado entitled “Using CIRP Student-level Data to Study Input-Adjusted Degree Attainment.”
In this paper we discuss the long-standing purpose of the CIRP Freshman Survey to provide essential “input” information on our college students, and the belief at the Higher Education Research Institute that one cannot adequately measure change in college without knowing what students are like before the college experience. We then link CIRP Freshman Survey information with completion data from the National Student Clearinghouse. This paper expands upon work we previously published in our monograph “Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates At Four-Year Institutions.” In particular, we look at the completion characteristics of students who leave their first institutution and graduate from another, whom we call “mobile completers.”
We ended the paper with six recomendations, which I am listing here:
1. Institutional graduation rates should be adjusted for the types of students colleges are recruiting, particularly those colleges that are advancing the social mobility of diverse students (based on race/ethnicity, preparation and income status). This is not to say we should accept low graduation rates, but rather understand that some colleges are doing much better than expected in offering opportunities for specific types of populations. A fairer comparison should be based not on institution type alone but rather on similar types of student population characteristics.
2. Much like varying student intentions at community colleges, graduation rates at four-year colleges should also be adjusted for student intentions to transfer at college entry. Knowing students’ predispositions is critical to understanding how to best enhance their probabilities for retention to graduation. The CIRP Freshman Survey administered at college entry has been extremely useful to campuses in capturing these predispositions and also understanding key admissions criteria that contribute to higher rates of retention, including drive to achieve, and potential for students to contribute to the social environment or service work at the institution. One concern of promoting the use of a comprehensive instrument such as the CIRP Freshman Survey is whether the cost is prohibitive to institutions wanting to gather the wide array of information that makes the model as powerful as it is, rather than rely on the simple four-characteristic expected graduation model (high school grades, SAT/ACT, race/ethnicity and sex). To this we reply that it is likely that the cost of such assessment, regardless of the other values it has, is surely recouped by the ability to retain even a few students, given the costs involved in recruiting replacements, the loss of revenue, and the resources expended by the institution to consider other ways to increase retention.
3. An institutional graduation rate should also be adjusted for peer norms that are very difficult for institutions to control, including the potential mobility of the student population (indicated by the peer norm of intention to transfer) and the percentage of part-time students, which affects individual decisions to continue at the same institution to graduation.
4. Institutional graduation rates should also be adjusted for institutional resources devoted per student FTE. Some of the lowest-income students, unfortunately, also attend institutions with the least resources. That is, quite often the lowest-resourced institutions also attract students with the least social, cultural and academic capital. Most of the time, these students require more academic support in the first two years of college. Funding policies should acknowledge this institutional stratification, understanding that resources have to be directed toward greater student academic support in these kinds of institutions and it may be more appropriate to establish specific benchmarks along the way to degree progress (e.g. first year retention, movement from remedial to college level credit-bearing coursework).
5. Institutions should be encouraged to report “mobile completers” as part of their institutional retention rates, particularly if they are providing basic skills and general education coursework to students that may result in better opportunities or better selection of majors elsewhere. Consortia of regional institutions should also report a regional retention rate and change over time as a result of collaborative and intentional efforts to increase baccalaureate attainment rates.
6. We recommend the use of multiple data sources for evaluating and adjusting graduation rates, particularly information regarding student financial aid, and any additional information from the student’s application that captures the key predictors of degree completion. In instances where information is not available, the CIRP Freshman Survey can be a useful substitute.