Traditionally, most institutions have measured graduation and completion rates by looking only at those students who have been awarded a degree or certificate from that same institution. However administrators have long complained that such a view does not take into account the dynamics of student "swirl" where a student may take courses at one school and transfer to another, possibly multiple times in their educational career. They often do so for a host of reasons including convenience, cost, and academic reputation. Furthermore, recent studies such as those by "Complete College America" and reported in the NY Times show dramatic gaps in both the completion and time to completion for students. The Chronicle of Higher Education has also tackled the issue of graduation rate measurement.
This issue is of particular concern at community colleges where to some extent the intention of a student may be to transfer to a four year institution from the outset. As accreditation and funding bodies demand more evidence of student success and completion, a more comprehensive picture is required to better measure outcomes. Many community colleges report graduation rates in the low teens on the IPEDS survey based on the federal cohort definitions. But is that apparently low performance really the case?
In a project with ASR Analytics, Howard Community College in Columbia, MD decided to tackle just this issue. After implementing an enrollment and retention analytics solution that provided a wealth of information to the President's Team and Retention and Graduation Steering Team, Zoe Irvin, Executive Director of Planning and Research, decided the next critical step in enhancing service to students and their understanding of completion was to get a broader view of where students were going and what they were doing after leaving Howard. For some time they had been asking students upon entry what their educational goals were. But what really happens to them over the next 7 years?
The first challenge was to determine how to gather data about their students after they left. A small scale pilot program to track students who transferred to University of Maryland had been started, but something much broader, more sustainable, and less labor intensive was required to be of any value.
Howard, like many institutions, participates in the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) EnrollVerify and DegreeVerify services which entitles them to request subsequent data for all their students they ever have submitted. This was a natural starting point to integrate with their own internal administrative system generated enrollment and degree information. Together, this would give a more comprehensive picture of what the student is doing over time. Granted, there are some limitations. For example, not all institutions participate in the NSC service leaving potential gaps in student completion. Also, reporting of actual degree codes and programs of study is not standardized but rather freeform text making it impossible to know much more than they graduated from a 2 year or 4 year institution. From this one can assume a 2 or 4 year degree, but not much more.
In any event, a significant step forward has been achieved by linking past and present cohorts of students to the NSC data to see a more comprehensive and longer term view of continued study and degree completion at other schools. This has provided the Howard team with a way to see patterns by demographic characteristics available in the existing enrollment and retention analytics extended to the completion data. It can be used to improve delivery of services and provide interventions as well as ways to reach out and recapture students who may not be continuing elsewhere. In the words of one Vice President: "this combination of data provide us with a wealth of information to analyze that has never been available before."
This solution is now being evaluated by and implemented at several other institutions. For more information, please contact ASR Analytics.