New Data Counts More Students, But Still Doesn’t Count Them All

By Michael Itzkowitz

Today marks a big development in the world of higher education data — the first ever release of graduation rates for part-time and transfer students, as well as those receiving Pell Grants (federal support for low-income students). These groups have been left out of our higher education data systems since its inception in 1990.

It was a problem then, but now it’s become a much bigger one given the change in our-college going population. Times have changed and so have our students. No longer do 18-year-old, middle-class students make up the overwhelming majority of those enrolling in institutions of higher education. In fact, those captured in current higher education data — first-time, full-time students — make up only 47% of all students. We’ve also had no clue how well our institutions were serving lower-income, Pell Grant students — a demographic that now makes up a third of all college students.

This new release of data helps fill in a serious gap, and it takes us a big step closer to knowing whether our institutions of higher education are truly serving their students.

What’s Improved?

Part-Time and Transfer Students — Outcome Measures Survey

For the past 20+ years, the Department of Education (Department) has collected graduation rate data only on first-time, full-time students through its Graduate Rate Survey (GRS). The new information released today on part-time and transfer students is collected through a new and different National Center for Education Statistics survey, known as the Outcome Measures (OM) survey. The OM survey differs from the GRS, and some small differences help capture a broader range of students for the first time.

For example, beginning in collection year 2017–2018, the OM survey will include students who enroll throughout the academic year, not just those who enroll in fall. It also incorporates students who begin as either part-time or transfer students at an institution. All of these changes are a huge win for institutions that enroll a significant amount of “non-traditional” students, as the Department will now be able to publish a more representative picture of their graduation rate outcomes.

A common example of an institution enrolling more non-traditional students is the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). This institution showed a graduation of only 10% for its first-time, full-time students who enrolled in fall 2010. However, only 3% of its students were first-time full-time — hardly a representative sample of its student body.

via U.S. Department of Education, College Navigator — University of Maryland University College.

Since the new OM survey also provides information on non-first-time students, we now have information on how well those students perform at UMUC. And the differences are staggering. In fact, 43% of them earned a degree within six years of entering the institution.

via U.S. Department of Education, College Navigator — University of Maryland University College.

Pell Grant Students — Graduation Rate Surve

The graduation rates on students who receive Pell Grant released today comes through the survey instrument that the Department has been using for years, the Graduation Rate Survey. This means that the information on Pell Grant recipients still only includes first-time, full-time students. However, it includes outcomes that we’ve never known before. Taxpayers spend $30 billion on Pell grants each year, yet until today, we’ve not had access to graduation rates for those low-income students! This will not only let us know how well we are serving these students across the United States, but it will also shine a light on those institutions that are committed to equity and serving these students well (and of course, flag those that aren’t).

Where Does This Data Fall Short?

There is no doubt that this is a move in the right direction, but it still leaves a couple of missing pieces to this puzzle.

For one, it doesn’t allay concerns of institutions that pride themselves on transferring a lot of students, such as community colleges. While it provides graduation rates on students who transfer into an institution, it doesn’t let us know where those students transferred from. So, while Santa Fe Community College may be great at preparing its students to enter and graduate from the University of Florida, it’s ultimately UF that will get credit for graduating that student under the new data.

And for the students who do transfer in, we still have no idea how many credits they have when they start. So while some four-year institutions may regularly enroll students transferring in with 30 or 60 credits, others may enroll many with only 15 credits or less. This disparity makes comparing these numbers between institutions difficult, and it means the data is still a bit of apples to oranges.

We also still don’t know the outcomes of mixed-enrollment students through this data release. It classifies students by what status they were upon enrollment, either part-time or full-time. However, many students shift back and forth between part-time and full-time. This is another data point that would give us a better indication of how well institutions are serving different kinds of students. Additionally, all of this new data also lacks a breakdown by race or gender. This is something that advocates have routinely asked for to better highlight inequities and divergent outcomes within our higher education system.

And, finally, this new release does not provide any program-level information. We know program outcomes within a college often vary more than they do between institutions. However, this release doesn’t give students or policymakers information on how well engineering, social work, or business students do within each of their respective programs of study.

What’s Next?

Through this release, the Department has made clear steps forward by increasing information that’s available on student outcomes. Hopefully, through future releases, it will continue to improve upon this (i.e. Pell part-time and Pell transfer student graduation rates are slated be included in next year’s Outcome Measures release). The Department has also said it’s working toward releasing program-level earnings data for students who receive a federal grant or loan, which would be another big improvement given that we know outcomes at a single institution can vary widely by program.

However, even with these advancements, many students are still not counted, and we still lack a complete picture of institutional outcomes. Fortunately, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle (and both sides of the Capitol) share this concern and have been working to fix this. Earlier this year, a bipartisan, bicameral bill was introduced, known as the College Transparency Act. This bill aims to solve the deficiencies that exist in our current system by patching together the gaps in our current system. The Department has done about the best they can do at this time; however, without the passage of a bill like the CTA, our ability to understand outcomes for all students will remain a work in progress.


Michael Itzkowitz is a senior policy advisor for higher education at Third Wayand the former Director of the College Scorecard at the U.S. Department of Education.