Sharper Focus on Graduation Rates

Higher education organizations and institutions, including USF, line up in support of a new proposal to change how graduates are counted. 


                                                                                                                                Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Kevin Burke

Special to USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 25, 2013) — A new method of reporting college graduation rates is being proposed by the six national higher education presidential associations and a growing list of universities nationwide, including the University of South Florida.


USF was among the first to pledge support for the Student Achievement Measure or SAM project when it was publicly announced June 24.


The SAM metric will allow colleges and universities to deliver a more complete and transparent picture of student progress along the path to earning a college degree or certificate by better tracking an increasingly mobile student population. The typical method for calculating graduation rates, as stipulated by federal legislation, only counts those students who enroll full-time and then start and finish at their first college or university.


Meanwhile, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data indicate more than one in five students who complete a degree do so at an institution other than the one where they started. Fifteen percent had previously attended college in at least one other state.


SAM offers an innovative reporting tool that provides a more comprehensive overview of student outcomes by asking the additional questions: What proportion of students transferred to another institution? What proportion graduated from another institution? What proportion is still enrolled?


“These are important questions, the answers to which should go a long way toward demonstrating to its many stakeholders higher education’s full impact on the lives of students, our communities, as well as the state and national economies,” said USF Provost Ralph Wilcox. “It is well known that current, federally-mandated measures of student progress and completion are inadequate and often underreport student achievement. We are confident that the SAM metric will provide, to policymakers and the public alike, a more accurate picture of student progress.


“In the end, I’m sure that picture will reveal that students are, in fact, graduating from the country’s colleges and universities in significantly greater numbers.”


Within the USF System alone, Wilcox said, there have been numerous instances when a student began her or his enrollment at separately accredited USF St. Petersburg before later transferring to and completing a course of study at the main campus in Tampa, or vice versa. Under current federal guidelines, neither USF Tampa nor USF St. Petersburg is permitted to count those students for purposes of reporting graduation rates. (USF Sarasota-Manatee this fall will begin to enroll its first cohort of full-time, first time in college students).


Valeria Garcia, director of USF’s Office of Decision Support, puts the impact of those transfers at more than 10 percentage points on USF-St. Petersburg’s current six-year graduation rate of 33 percent.


The SAM project is a joint initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).


Major financial support for the project comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, APLU, and AASCU.


USF was among five universities across the country to endorse the plan as soon as it was announced, joining Ball State University (Indiana), the University of Illinois-Chicago, Mississippi State University, and Oregon State University. Within 24 hours, the list had expanded to more than 35 institutions including the University of Iowa, University of Kansas, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon, and Princeton University.


Participating colleges and universities will begin to post their institution’s individual Student Achievement Measure on the SAM Web site beginning in fall 2013. Visitors to the site will then be able to search for specific SAMs by institution name, state, or institution type.


Kevin Burke can be reached at 813-974-0192.