When a new formula for computing high school graduation rates went into effect last year, there was a huge outcry when the public learned that just 72 percent of Alabama high school students graduated on time. The outcry was entirely justifiable. That percentage indeed was abysmal.
But each of Alabama's four-year public colleges probably would jump at the chance to graduate 72 percent of their students. The average graduation rate for Alabama's public four-year colleges in 2010 was just 47.5 percent.
In fact, that 47.5 percent is based on the number of students who graduate in six years, unlike the four-year target for high school students. The average four-year graduation rate for Alabama's 13 four-year colleges was just 22.9 percent, according to the respected Chronicle of Higher Education.
The six-year graduation rates for Alabama's 13 public universities ranged from a high of 67.3 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to a low of 24 percent at Alabama State University in Montgomery.
According to the Chronicle's web site, the six-year average graduation rate of Alabama's universities compared to public four-year colleges throughout the nation was 47.5 percent for Alabama versus 56 percent for the nation.
(With so few students actually graduating in four years -- 22.9 percent in Alabama and 31.3 percent for the nation, perhaps we should stop calling them "four-year colleges.")
College officials will be quick to point out that colleges have lots of students who transfer from one college to another and who leave to work and return later. But the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the federal formula factors out most such students. The data collection system targets only "first-time, full-time students who enroll in the fall and get degrees from the places they started, in at most three years for an associate degree or six for a bachelor's."
"Transfers, part-timers, and students who take a break and re-enroll either later or elsewhere — even if they graduate — don't count," the Chronicle reported. That means about 40 percent of college students are not currently a factor in computing graduate rates.
There has been much debate nationally over how to track part-time and transfer students, but many college officials have resisted such changes. That leaves the current rates -- as incomplete as they are -- as the only truly comparable way to measure college graduation rates.
The picture painted by the Chronicle using current reports is not very flattering for most of Alabama's public universities, with only the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (ranked 67th in the nation out of 416) and Auburn University (ranked 72nd) with rates higher than the national average.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
[ONLINE: Additional CHE Data]
Of course, the Chronicle web site points out that any measure of graduation rates would not address the quality of the degrees awarded.
But still, graduation rates matter. They matter because a degree -- or in some cases a certificate completion -- are crucial for a college student to get a job. From an economic standpoint, "students who start college but don't finish are typically no better off than those who never even started, and in some cases might be worse off, if they took on debt," the Chronicle reported.
And because of the subsidies this state and others sink into public universities and the federal government invests in student loans and grants, Alabama taxpayers have a major stake in graduation and completion rates, as well as the cost per completion.
National data on college graduations has significant flaws as currently measured, but it is important data nonetheless for parents, students and taxpayers.
"In a society that cares about the credential, finishing college matters," Mark Schneider, a former U.S. commissioner for education statistics who is now vice president at the American Institutes for Research, told the Chronicle. "Employers don't advertise they want six years of college. They want a degree."
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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