A Simple Solution to a Big College Problem–SURs

What is the college graduation rate in this country? Correct answer: nobody knows. All the statistics you’ve read about are at best partial truths. We basically track graduation only for “traditional” students. The problem is that these “traditional” students are no longer representative – most college students are now “non-traditional”: 38 percent of students enroll part time; some full-time students start again after some earlier post-secondary work; and a good many students who transfer to another institution are counted as dropouts. In fact some important news arrived today–one third of all college students transfer before graduating, so our statistics on college completion are even more unreliable than we thought.

The fact that we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on higher education and can’t determine something as basic as a national graduation rate is a dereliction of duty. The solution to this problem is deceptively simple: turn to Student Unit Records. SURs are straightforward – they are databases that assign each student an individual number so that their educational history can be tracked. With a SUR, the pace of part-time students could be accounted for, and transfer students would no longer vanish, making it possible to calculate an accurate and meaningful graduation rate.

There’s a second advantage from having a SUR: it would allow a better understanding of each college’s and even each program’s performance. For example, while post-college earnings are certainly not the only thing that matters, they are an important consideration for many students. Matching educational records from a SUR with earnings data from the IRS would allow for accurate employment outcomes to be published for each college and program. Such information would help students make better decisions which would in turn help discipline and focus colleges. This can’t be done without a SUR.

There are two main groups opposed to SUR. The first are colleges. In an unusual alliance, both the best and the worst colleges fear SURs. The bad colleges like being able to say things like “Our 9% official graduation rate ignores transfer students and is therefore not an accurate depiction of the quality of our college.” The fact that they oppose a SUR system which would allow for accurate graduation rates to be calculated tells us that they are more interested in maintaining plausible excuses than in actually finding an accurate number. Meanwhile, the best colleges are terrified of being compared to other schools on something like value added earnings. At best, such a comparison would confirm that they are indeed the best. But a comparison might show that they do not deserve to be on top, and they are terrified that some no name college will be shown to be just as good or better. Thus, for top colleges, there is nothing to gain, and potentially everything to lose from such comparisons. While colleges’ opposition to SURs are understandable, there is absolutely no reason for policymakers to indulge them.

The second group opposed to SURs are Republicans concerned about privacy violations. To an extent these were legitimate concerns as any database has potential privacy issues. But recently, convincing methods of safeguarding privacy while implementing a SUR have been developed. Republican Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell has done great work in this area, as has Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Republican U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter. The Republicans that have opposed SURs to date deserve credit for ensuring that privacy was taken into account, but it is now time to acknowledge that their concerns have been addressed.

America has some great colleges that are the envy of the world. But we also have some terrible colleges that waste student and taxpayer money. A SUR would help us separate the wheat from the chaff.


7 thoughts on “A Simple Solution to a Big College Problem–SURs

  1. My take is a bit different. More and more kids see college as a must and the proof of that is the reason given why SAT scores have declined big time i.e. more kids who didn’t use to aspire to college now are. And of course the govt will pay your way with subsidized loans that they’ll even forgive if you play your cards right and of schools pretty much abandon kids who are not set up to go to college. Yeah they have non-college tracks but they’re not at all effective in preparing the kids for the 21st century technical jobs .. that they’ll have to compete for and the kids (and their parents) know that the non-college track in K-12 is a dead-end curricula.. they all but shout it. We talk about entitlements and how many don’t pay Federal Taxes but the bitter truth is that we also have a middle class that is thoroughly used to sucking on the govt teat. We tax people to the tune of $10,000 per kid per year and we produce 1/3 of them with 21st century proficiency in reading, writing, math and science and that would be the 1/3 whose parents push them towards college.. If you are a kid and you don’t have a parent pushing you towards college you are screwed blued and tattooed.

  2. I don’t understand how knowing university graduation rates, much less national rates, is useful or enlightening?
    Does a high graduation rate show an institution dedicated to its students? Or does it show an institution of easy, blow-off courses an limited utility in real learning?
    Does a low graduation rate show an institution of demanding excellence at which only the very best survive? Or does it show an institution of overwhelming boredom and mediocrity?
    The graduation rates themselves speak of nothing, not without a great deal of other, ancillary data. Indeed, seeking out the national graduation rates indicates an intent to “do something about them” if they don’t meet some (what?) standard or statistic. That is, outcomes must be massaged or ‘engineered’ to achieve some basic level. This is what you want? Sounds like a program of stifling mediocrity to me.

  3. The National Student Clearinghouse already serves a type service for this.
    However, I believe it is predicated on student loan usage, and could exclude a number of students.

  4. I’m not sure how the privacy issues could be “addressed” when it’s the fundamental premise of detailed tracking and cross-indexing that presents the problem. I’m very uncomfortable with a central database containing the educational and career outcomes of every customer who ever purchases the services of an educational institution, even if it’s nominally “anonymized”. And, frankly, I think most students would be disturbed to discover the degree of tracking that already takes place without any meaningful level of consent or discussion.
    If a student wishes this information to be shared with another institution, a private company, or with the government then they’re welcome to do so. Voluntarily, on a case-by-case basis. Make the case to them.

  5. So my local press reports that our schools are substandard ’cause we don’t have many college grads living here.
    So I ask — how many of our high school grads go to college? Of course, no one knows.
    I asked them how our kids did when they went to college — no one knew.
    You mean, we don’t know if our kids do well overall, let alone how they’re doing in certain areas? Correcto-mundo, I’m told.
    But one local educator told me I’m definitely asking the right questions!

  6. This is an interesting idea, but the privacy concerns shouldn’t be dismissed that easily. Identity theft and pure human error are problems that we have in credit reports, despite strong legislation, and those problems linger for years with all kinds of repercussions. Extending this into the education realm could easily be disastrous for some. I think it’s entirely unhelpful to suggest that objections on privacy grounds come only from Republicans–quite simply, they don’t. The counterargument to the privacy concerns, we learn here, is stunningly weak. We are simply told that a governor, a representative and a senator have done “great work in this area.” Sorry, hardly convincing.

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