John Butcher, of Cranky’s Blog fame, is turning his analytical gaze from K-12 schools to higher education. In his latest post, he explores the strong correlation between a Virginia public institution’s six-year graduation rate and the average SAT scores of its student body, as seen in the table to the left and the plotted chart below of median SAT math scores. (See his post for the chart of English SAT scores.)
The commentary in his post is sparse, but he makes interesting points in his email correspondence with me:
UVa and MaryBill both take very smart kids and graduate nearly all. The middle-tier colleges take less bright kids and graduate fewer. VCU takes still less bright kids and graduates still fewer. All these sit pretty well on the fitted line, except that JMU under-performs on the math datum.
Why should schools taking less able students graduate a smaller proportion? If they were doing their jobs, they would adapt to their clientèle and give them degrees. Doubtless the market would discount those degrees (surely it does already as to the kids who graduate now). But we wouldn’t see the kids being sloughed off.
VSU and Longwood both over-perform, albeit not by nearly enough. But they are doing something better, if not entirely right. What is it?
Six-year college graduation rates are the standard performance metric for U.S. colleges and universities. Four years to graduation is the ideal. Six years contain a lot of slack and, to my mind, and represents a shamefully low hurdle. The inability of a student to graduate within six years constitutes a total failure, either on the student’s part, the university’s part or both. It represents a misallocation of resources by the higher ed system and a personal tragedy for the student, who typically accumulates thousands of dollars in loans and has no sheepskin to show for it.
We need to better understand the key variables affecting six-year graduation rates.
John gets the conversation rolling by noting that the odds are stacked in favor of smarter students (with smarts measured by SAT scores). Indeed, SAT scores account for almost 80% of the variation in the graduation rate. Smarter kids come disproportionately from well-off families that raise them in an environment that rewards educational achievement and also have the means to support them financially while in school. These students can spend more time studying and less time worrying how to pay tuition, fees, room, board and incidentals.
But the correlation is not perfect. Some institutions do better with the raw material (students) they are given than others, as can be seen by the squares above and below the plotted line. (Old Dominion University may be an outlier because its student population contains a high percentage of military personnel who leave when they rotate to an assignment in another location.)
John asks if institutions are gearing their curriculum and academic standards toward the students in their student body, as opposed, perhaps, to the students they wished they had. That hypothesis is worth pursuing.
Here’s another: Could the guidance and support given students play a role in college graduation rates?
In 2011 the University of Virginia performed slightly above expectations in six-year graduation rates, but only slightly. As part of its strategic plan (the Cornerstone Plan) instituted in 2013, UVa is pioneering the concept of “total advising,” which integrates academic advising, career advising, and coaching. One would hope that the program will show higher six-year graduation rates for the class of 2017.
Likewise, it would be interesting to see what the Virginia Military Institute, Christopher Newport University, and Mary Washington University — all of which performed above expectations — are doing differently from other universities.
One way or another, we need to figure out how to help students graduate on time and on budget.
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