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.