Federal government says we need better data on low-income graduation rates

The current system leaves out key metrics, critics argue

The federal government has issued a proposal to publish more accurate college graduation rates by institution for students receiving Pell Grants, Sarah Butrymowicz reports for the Hechinger Report

The problem with reporting graduation rates

Graduation rates are currently only tracked for college students who start as freshmen and attend school full-time. Critics of this system argue that it does not take into account the growing number of non-traditional students entering higher education. These data are crucial to helping consumers determine how well individual institutions graduate low-income students.

Institutions must disclose their graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients if asked by prospective students, but a loophole allows schools to keep this information from the government. Therefore, graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients are not included among centrally reported data such as enrollment and graduation rates by race. 

Last fall, the Education Department released Pell Grant graduation rates as part of the Obama administration's College Scorecard. However, the figures were calculated using the National Student Loan Database System, which experts say was not intended to track such data. An analysis conducted by the Hechinger Report found a 10-percentage point difference on average between the department's figures and those reported to Education Trust.

More comprehensive data 

Under the plan, the Education Department would collect data on several types of students:

  • Full-time;
  • Full-time transfers;
  • Part-time;
  • Part-time transfers;
  • Pell Grant recipients;
  • Those who start college as freshmen;
  • Those who start from scratch; and
  • Those returning after time away.

The plan is open to public comment until April 18, with new graduation rates being previewed throughout next year and officially collected beginning in 2017-2018.

"For too long, we have been missing critical information on how well low-income students fare at individual colleges and universities," says Mamie Voight, director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The proposal, she says, "is a much-needed step in providing better information to students, policymakers, and institutions about the success of low-income students."

The National College Access Network calls the proposal a "significant step forward," but says the government should provide more detailed data. According to the organization, "There may be distinctions between students receiving, for example, a maximum Pell Grant and students receiving a partial grant, and this change will not allow for disaggregation of outcomes around this distinction." It continues, "Similarly, the Pell Grant cohort will not be further disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, or enrollment intensity. This will reduce both institutional burden and the likelihood of data being suppressed because of low sample sizes" (Butrymowicz, Hechinger Report, 2/20). 

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