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Better Data as a Remedy to Low U.S. Graduation Rates


by Thomas J. Hochstettler - October 06, 2006

Could a database such as that proposed by the Spellings Commission help us improve low graduation rates? Certainly yes—that, and much more. It is time that those of us leading our colleges and universities stop imagining ourselves above scrutiny and devote ourselves to the task of improving our contribution to our students and the nation.

Imagine a refrigerator manufacturer whose product failed to keep food cold roughly half the time, or an accountant who got the numbers right at only a 50 percent rate. Both, of course, would be out of business very quickly.


Data on the nation’s higher education system—a system whose “product” is far more fundamental to our national future than any refrigerator—indicates that our colleges and universities are graduating only 51 percent of our students within five years of their entry. More startling yet, the Education Trust finds that 50 U.S. colleges have a six-year graduation rate below 20 percent.


The comparison between a refrigerator and a college education is imperfect, to say the least. But few would defend failure rates of this magnitude. That is why I find it surprising, and certainly frustrating, that many in higher education are opposing a proposed national database about student progress and outcomes that I believe would do much to help us diagnose performance shortcomings in higher education and, better yet, fix them.


The issue of a database has been the subject of public debate since its proposal by the so-called Spellings Commission earlier this year.  As part of a sweeping proposal to reform American higher education, the federal commission is urging the establishment of a privacy-protected information clearinghouse to track students as they pursue their varied paths through the higher education system and into the workforce. The commission’s proposal, importantly, specifies that data on individual students will not be matched with social security numbers or other personal identifiers, thus ensuring that Uncle Sam does not learn what classes a student took or dropped, or how well he or she performed in them. The basic concept is to apply to our college and university system the same rigorous information gathering and analysis that we expect of our faculties and students in the scholarly work they undertake.


Students are falling through the cracks, and—surprising for an enterprise such as ours—we have done very little to understand the reasons. Why do students drop out? Where do they go when they do? What factors in primary and secondary school, beyond GPAs, class rankings, and standardized test scores, best predict their success or failure in college? Other than large endowments and hyper-selectivity, what common ingredients are shared by colleges that graduate students at rates better than 90 percent? What impact does students’ educational experience have on their success or failure after graduation?


We are at present ill-equipped to answer these questions. Without basic information, both individual institutions and society lack the tools to assess how the system is working, how it is failing, and how it might be improved.


Much of my colleagues’ criticism of the Spellings Commission database centers on the perception that we can’t trust the federal government with such sensitive information.  Privacy concerns are understandable, particularly in a time when politicians have demonstrated a willingness to overlook basic American liberties to protect national security or make political points, depending on one’s perspective. Yet I believe the solution to that problem is not to squander an opportunity to gather much-needed data on our sector but, rather, to establish such checks and balances within our political and judicial systems as will ensure that such information remains inviolate.


Moreover, those objecting to the database have not, to this point, explained how the Spellings Commission proposal represents a dramatic departure from federal data collection projects that have been underway for decades and are familiar to us all. Most notable among them is FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—which requires aid applicants to provide their Social Security and driver’s license numbers as well as information on their families’ income and assets.


Where some see the proposed database as a Big Brother peering over our and our students’ shoulders, I see a potential for a robust (and privacy-protected) set of metrics that would yield essential data with tremendous potential for advancing our individual institutions and for identifying with greater precision those areas where our national education policy needs to be strengthened. Where some see the specter of government intrusion, I see the possibility of transforming our current separate data reporting schemes into a streamlined system that is beneficial to students and useful to faculty and administrators. Such a system could help us bring much needed improvements to graduation rates, to be sure, and accomplish so much more for our students and the country.


We can be sure that other countries are collecting such data and putting them to good use—countries that have designs on matching, and surpassing America as the home of the world’s best higher education system.


Having worked as a college administrator in Germany, I know that data on student progress and outcomes are carefully tracked and studied in that country. The more than forty European countries party to the Bologna Declaration—among them the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Turkey—are not only collecting such student information, but also sharing it with each other as part of their commitment to reciprocity in their university systems. Other would-be, long-term rivals to American supremacy in higher education—China and India, for example—are certain to be gathering such intelligence and putting it to good use. The consequences for national security and economic competitiveness are both obvious and profoundly important.


Could a database such as that proposed by the Spellings Commission help us improve low graduation rates? Certainly yes—that, and much more. It is time that those of us leading our colleges and universities stop imagining ourselves above scrutiny and devote ourselves to the task of improving our contribution to our students and the nation.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 06, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12775, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:33:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Hochstettler
    Lewis & Clark College
    THOMAS J. HOCHSTETTLER is the president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.
 
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