Monday, March 30, 2015

Higher Education Looking Stronger (Much Stronger)

The chart above made my jaw drop.

For years, I've been blogging the reported graduation rates for Kentucky higher education for years.   I've cited figures like a 52% six-year graduation for full-time, first time students who entered Murray State in 2005, and a 37% six-year rate for full-time, first-time students who entered Northern Kentucky University that year.  For associates degrees statewide, I've displayed a 32% three-year graduation rate for students who started full-time study in 2006, and reported that as better than most states' results for that time frame.

Just eyeballing the graph above, you can tell it suggests something much better.  Doing the arithmetic, we had 2009 graduates equal to 85% of our 2005 freshmen, and 2014 graduates equal to 88% of our 2010 freshmen.

How can the results be so different?  The big reason is probably that the reported graduation rates for each school count only the ones who start and finish at the same institution, while this method looks at the whole system, so that transferring and graduating counts as much as staying put and graduating.  Even knowing that transfers weren't accounted for, I never imagined that the impact could be on this scale.

The starting and entering numbers shown above also aren't perfect matches.  Here are some of the limits on the comparisons shown above:
  • Many of the 2014 bachelors degrees probably to students who started before 2010, and a bunch of the 2014 associates were earned by students who started in 2011 or 2012--but over the long run, that's more about timing than about whether students end up with a degree in hand.
  • Some students may earn very few credits their first year, and end up being counted as freshmen more than once--but that would make the number of students who start working toward a degree smaller, so that the number who earn degrees would be more impressive.
  • Some of the graduates may have transferred in from out-of-state. Depending on whether more students transfer in than transfer out, those transfers  could help or hurt the overall picture.
  • Some may have transferred from private institutions--and I do have anecdotal evidence that the flow of transfers does move toward the public sector and make the total graduations look stronger.
  • Some students who earn bachelors degrees earn associates degrees first, so they're counted in two different years--and each double degree means someone else who didn't finish at all.
  • Some students earn two degrees at the associates level or the bachelors level, and they'll also be counted more than once and offset some who don't make it to graduation at all.
Even with all of those factors, the chart above suggests that Kentucky's public institutions are graduating something like 80% of the students they enroll. That's good news that's very different than the graduation rates I've shared in past posts on higher education.

(Matt Reed's post on "Dropouts, Grads, and Terrible Counting" pushed me to do this comparison of the big numbers, and I'm grateful for the nudge.  The numbers in the chart come from the Council on Postsecondary Education's reporting on enrollment and degrees.)

--Posted by Susan Perkins Weston

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Updates and data on Kentucky education!