Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ceteris paribus, higher ed edition 

Joe Nathan wrote last week about graduation rates in the MnSCU schools, and he is "stunned" and "shocked" by what they tell. But his own words trip him up here:
The report shows that Minnesota ranks 5th in the nation in percentage of 2004 high school graduates who ENROLLED in a two or four year higher education institution. That figure is 65.3%. About 50% enter a Minnesota college or univeristy, with the rest going to a higher education institution outside Minnesota.

Comparable figures for North Dakota were (67.6%) and South Dakota (68.8%). Guess I would not have predicted that a higher percentage of high school graduates in those two states would go on to a college or university.

Overall we are doing pretty well in helping students enter higher education. But graduation rates are far too low.
Nationwide, only 37% of students who go to a four-year school to seek a degree actually get the degree in four years; 63% get it within six years. Why does Minnesota rank in the middle (and St. Cloud State with 19.3% in four years and 46% in six)? It has to do with who we get as students. Selective universities will get students who have both better preparation for college, and higher tuition as a motivator to get done on time. Carleton's graduation rates of 88.1% & 92.8% make a lot of sense when you consider who they bring onto campus and how much they charge for you to stay around for years 5 and 6.

Variation across states can be explained both by selectivity, demographics, and institutional features. MnSCU has made it a priority that students in any institution can easily transfer to other MnSCU institutions. But that doesn't necessarily mean the student makes that transfer seamlessly. We try to develop agreements and programs to allow students at two-year schools to move to the four-years, but it's not always the smoothest transition. And we get students who frequently take less than a full load, even after you advise them that this will slow them down. Again, because there's no penalty attached to being around for an extra year, there's little incentive for students to get done with college besides their own feelings that they need to get on with life.

I went into IPEDS and let it generate a list of 26 peer institutions (almost all within our geographic region.) These are public schools with masters programs, all of which appear to be relatively non-selective in admissions. Their six-year graduation rates for all degrees was 49%. But we are even less selective than these peers. We admitted 84.7% of those who applied to SCSU, compared to 77.7% at our peers. 41% of those we admit come to this school, compared to 45% for our peers. Their ACT scores are about the same, so it appears we're getting about the same quality student. (All data for Fall 2006 admissions.)

So I would argue that the differences that remain when we compare apples to apples are not big enough to call this some kind of emergency. Most certainly we could afford to do a better job in getting students here who want to stay, and we could do better at making sure students take the right number of credits (I have long argued for banded tuition here, so far in vain, even though four of our sister institutions have it.) But none of this is shocking or stunning. We've known it for a long time.