Numbers don’t tell the whole story

The first graduate of the University of Idaho’s computer science bachelor’s degree partnership with North Idaho College, Adrian Beehner, crossed the stage this week to a bright future in our increasingly tech-focused economy. Without leaving Coeur d’Alene, the newly minted Vandal graduate was able to seamlessly transfer from NIC to earn a four-year degree from U of I. For Adrian, his family, his future employers and the region, his story matters a great deal.

Unfortunately, in one key way, Adrian’s success doesn’t count.

U of I President Chuck Staben

Adrian’s accomplishments matter very much – he’s grown as a thinker and leader, acquired new skills and gained a necessary credential for a solid financial future. But the federal government doesn’t count his success. Federal graduation data does not count transfer, part-time or returning students in official graduation rates. Only full-time students, starting and finishing at the same institution, are counted in the data.

So are you among the 20 percent of students nationwide who complete a degree at a different school than where you started? Maybe you transferred to a four-year school from a community college. Maybe life’s challenges led you to attend classes part time. Maybe you took time off to start a family or work a job before going back to finish your degree. A ban on federal tracking of student-level data means your progress isn’t reported upon graduation. Transfer students are actually counted as dropouts for the institutions from which they transferred – a bureaucratic mistake that especially affects our Idaho community colleges.

This incomplete picture of student achievement impacts how we understand the entire dynamic of higher education in Idaho: college preparation, admissions and the recruitment process, institutional performance, scholarship effectiveness, and the relationship between education and workforce development. As policymakers target changes to promote access, affordability, retention and graduation, this fuzzy data premise leads to confusion. Students and parents making choices about where to go to college are also ill-served by only seeing 80 percent of the picture.

The landscape of higher education is more complex than ever. Students have the flexibility to progress on their own terms and are aided in Idaho by strong relationships between our colleges and universities. The University of Idaho, even with our hallmark residential campus experience, had 28 percent of our undergraduates register as part-time students last fall. Those students are doing the right thing for their personal situations and the majority will persist and graduate.

But without a change in higher education law, that success won’t be reflected the next time you check the federal government’s College Scorecard or one of the widely consulted media outlets that rely on that data. As the Higher Education Act reauthorization makes its way through Congress, the College Transparency Act is a vital companion piece to improve public understanding of postsecondary performance. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, of which U of I is a member, is championing a more comprehensive Student Achievement Measures system. Data collection that offers the complete picture of student success is not expensive, can offer sufficient safeguards for student data, and may even replace redundant and less-efficient systems.

Higher education is more important than ever for building a prosperous state, but questions about the necessity of a college degree and higher education’s effectiveness linger. We want Idahoans to have an accurate picture of college completion. Working from the same page to ensure all students are counted is an important step in the right direction.

 Written by University of Idaho President Chuck Staben.

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, a research and Extension center in Twin Falls, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. U of I is home to more than 12,000 students statewide and competes in the Big Sky Conference and Sun Belt Conference.

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