Graduation Rates: Against a Unit Record Data System

October 15, 2010

Over at Education Sector’s The Quick and the Ed, Ben Miller has a useful post about the American Institutes for Research’s new website  The website draws on IPEDS data to give you rapid access to the graduation rates of about 1500 colleges and universities.

Graduation rates are a useful outcome measure for colleges and universities, and one of the few we have data publicly available for all colleges and universities.  At a quick glance they tell us something about an institution’s effectiveness.  But they have three big problems.  One is that they are the lowest possible common denominator.  To know that someone has attained a degree from a college doesn’t tell you whether the person has learned anything.  On welcoming day each fall, the imp in me is tempted to confer degrees on all the incoming students, and say to them ‘now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with your education.’

Second, we know that a number of characteristics of incoming students are closely correlated with graduation rates, so colleges with well-prepared incoming students from affluent families will certainly have high graduation rates.  So it isn’t just what the college does.  You cannot simply compare graduation rates; you have to control for those incoming student characteristics.

And third, as students increasingly move around among institutions of higher education (swirl), the graduation rates of the individual institutions look worse than they should.  Students finish at a different institutions that where they started, and neither gets credit in the graduation rate.  By federal rules, they are counting for IPEDS what percentage of an incoming first-time full-time cohort graduated at that institution six years later.

This has given rise to proposals for a unit record data system in order to keep track of all this swirl.  The data system would be a large, federal database that kept track of each individual student through all of the twists and turns in their college career.  It certainly would allow some institutions to look better on their graduation rates.

Ben Miller gets very exercised in his post that some people do not like the idea of such a system.  Here’s his blast:

“[T]his database is arguably the most hated policy idea among the trade associations.** It’s so despised that colleges actually got a provision inserted into the reauthorized Higher Education Act banning the creation of such a system. (Even more ridiculous, early versions of the student loan reconciliation bill also included provisions saying that any money for statewide college access plans could not be used for the creation of a student unit record system.)

“The failed push for the unit record system and graduation rate reform leaves us with the worst of both worlds. The federal graduation rate is less than ideal and constantly cited by colleges as indicative of nothing. But colleges have also blocked avenues to improve that calculation and have shown no interest to self-report a better measure in significant numbers on their own. And so the higher education establishment now has a free hand to tear down the rate with no expectation that it will replace the calculation with anything better.”  (The ** notes that some higher ed organizations do support such a system.)

I’m not a trade association (not yet, anyway), but I am one who hates the idea.  Miller doesn’t allow a smidge of a glimpse why anyone but a trade association (hiss!! boo!!) could be against such a thing.  Yes, I see how it would give us better graduation rate data, but let’s not get too excited about that.  We still wouldn’t know whether anyone had learned anything.

Collecting all these unit record data (how grayly bureaucratic does that sound?) would create a massive collection of data on anyone who enrolls even one time at an accredited institution of higher education that awards federal financial aid.  In the database would be the names, social security numbers (to follow students), all the course selections, perhaps the grades, perhaps the disciplinary records, etc. of every student.  Do we, dear reader, not feel a twinge of privacy worry?  A twinge of civil libertarian anxiety?

Of course, we’re assured, there would be rules about access and security.  But with such a massive data set in federal hands, how could we trust that no one would find a way to surreptitious entry?  (Remember: as enacted, social security numbers were to be used for no other purpose.  Today they link huge archipelagos of data, and this idea would link in a continent of data.)

So no. I’m against the idea.  The gain is too pawltry; the risk too huge.  We can estimate better graduation rates by sampling and asking students, and thereby we could learn all that we want about swirl.  Citizenship doesn’t entail a responsibility to become a data record (except for the decennial Census). Wanting an education should not deprive you of rights.

I’m glad we have the flawed IPEDS graduation data more readily at hand now because of this new website.  Yes, we could improve these data.  But let’s talk before we label those who oppose unit record data systems as venal fools.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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