Comparing graduation in 6 years is a way to penalize colleges that serve students with lower average SES & SATs

A. Two colleges; one has retention rate 90% of the other. After 4 years, the graduation rate of the lower-retention college will be 66% of the other. 66% looks much worse than 90%.

B. Retention rate is easy to calculate, so use this to compare colleges and for any particular college to set a target.

Net withdrawal = Gross withdrawal – Returns
Net withdrawal rate = (#students at year n – # newly matriculated students + #students graduate -#students at year n-1)/#students at year n-1
Retention rate = 1- net withdrawal rate
= (#students at year n + #students graduate – # newly matriculated)/#students at year n-1

C. Even better, compare retention rates after controlling for average SES (socioeconomic status) and SAT/ACT scores.

Predicted retention rate (AVSES, AVSAT) = a + b*AVSES + c*AVSAT + d*AVSES*AVSAT (based on a regression analysis over all 4+ year colleges)

(See this article to understand why this is relevant.)

Compare actual retention rate/ predicted retention rate or actual retention rate – predicted retention rate

On that basis, decide whether efforts are needed to boost retention or whether efforts to boost retnetion are working.

D. Refine B & C to take into account student loads

Replace student numbers with numbers of effective full time students.
(If students in a college tend to study part-time but not withdraw, then that college is not a worse college for the fact that students take longer to graduate.)

E. Inquire into the ideological background of officials who promote the use of 6-year graduation rates.

Is the move to tie funding to 6-year graduation rates a backdoor way to punish public education for wanting to serve all students, not only those who are already advantaged (via higher SES and SAT) on entry?

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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