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Degree Attainment and Student Success in the Commonwealth

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Degree Attainment and Student Success in the Commonwealth

Since the gubernatorial election of 2009 and the passage of the Governor McDonnell?s higher education centerpiece, the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, Virginia has pursued a major goal of achieving a cumulative increase of 100,000 undergraduate degrees awarded to in-state students by 2025. The law also includes a ?like? increase in cumulative in-state undergraduate degrees from the nonprofit private institutions. Current projections have the Commonwealth well on its way to attaining that goal without difficulty. This would bring the degree attainment rates of Virginians aged 25-64 to approximately 55% with an associate?s degree or higher.
Figure 1 The common thread in any discussion about achieving the 100,000 degree goal has been the question of ?How do we get there?? Clearly, degree production is about enrollment and completion. We can hold completion rates the same (or hope they stay the same) and focus on enrolling more students thus creating more degrees, or we can focus on increasing graduation rates so the same number of students entering college earn more degrees, or we can attempt both. With either of the last two options, it is useful to know where we are currently with respect to graduation rates. For this report our focus is on the public four-year institutions. As can be seen from the large chart on below, Virginia public four-year colleges and universities, as a group, have the second highest combined graduation rate in the nation (70% and tied with Iowa), lagging behind only Delaware (73%) using the IPEDS Graduation Rate Survey results of the 2007 entering cohort of first-time, full-time students. Delaware only has two public four-year institutions (Delaware State University and University of Delaware) representing an adjusted cohort of 4,381 students compared to 28,608 in Virginia. Iowa also started with many fewer students, 9,873, from only three institutions. North Carolina is at 60%, Maryland at 61%, West Virginia 45%, and the District of Columbia 15%. Figure 2 The National Student Clearinghouse?s Signature Report #6 State Supplement provides different view of graduation rates by state. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) collects student-level data from participating institutions of all sectors representing approximately 94% of enrolled students. The scope of data collected on each student is quite limited, but its coverage of undergraduate enrollment and degree awards is unmatched. While NSC data cannot be used to precisely reproduce the IPEDS data, they are used to produce more complete and more nuanced measures that provide a necessary context for understanding student success. Nationally, the NSC has calculated that 63.4% of students beginning at a public four-year institution in 2007 completed a degree within six years at any institution. Limiting the measure to students completing their degree at the institution where they began, only 50.6% completed within six years. Fifteen percent of students enrolling in college for the first-time in 2007 were still enrolled in year six without having yet completed. Here again, Virginia barely trails behind Iowa in overall completion rate with 77.8% to Iowa?s 79.8. When it comes to graduating from the institution where the student initially enrolled, Virginia is on top at 67.3% with Iowa at 65.6%. A portion of Iowa?s students are bit more likely to complete a degree at a two-year institution than Virginia?s students. The NSC report provides a comparable measure of graduation rate restricted to students who maintain continuous full-time enrollment. This is an interesting measure as it provides an indication of the success rates of students who clearly seemed aimed at completion. Iowa students achieve an overall 91.4% completion rate, with 79.5% completing at the original institution. Virginia students achieve a 90.6% completion rate with 83% completing at the original institution of enrollment. Of course, since the data from the National Student Clearinghouse are, in fact, national, these are measures of student success more than any type of institutional effect. Typically, somewhere between 70 and 80% of students attending college in the year after high school attend college in Virginia. Thus while these measures are heavily driven by Virginia?s public four-year colleges, a significant number of students go out of state and graduate at comparable rates. This speaks well of their preparation in Virginia high schools. Looking at Virginia?s institutions we see a range graduation rates.
Table 1: First-time, Full-Time Cohort Graduation Rates By Institution
Over the past two decades, the combined public four-year graduation rate has increased from 42% of students completing within four-years to 51%, and 61% completing within six years to 69%, for all first-time, full-time students. This measure is slightly different than the previously used IPEDS measure as it is ignores the exclusions for death, military service, public service, and religious mission. SCHEV has foregone those exclusions as the there have never been more than 30 reported annually statewide on a basis of over 40,000 students in recent years. Further, because of file construction design and differences among institutions, we no longer include seventh summer graduates as part of year six of the graduation rate. This has very little impact, particularly as we view graduation rates in terms of annual trends. While the overall change of eight percentage points may not seem to be a huge increase over time, it certainly gives lie to the belief that graduation rates have not increased. Further, not only has the rate of graduation increased, but the raw number of entering students has increased by about 33% during the same time period.
Table 2: First-time, Full-time Cohort Graduation Rates, Public Four-year Institutions
The rates in Table 1 are limited to a very traditional model of measurement ? students enrolled in college for the first-time as full-time students in the fall semester. Table 2 expands the group slightly to include students entering in the spring semester. While such definitions as students enrolled as first-time, full-time in the fall, may have made sense two decades ago when the Student Right-to-Know Act was passed in 1990, they make much less sense today. At a growing number of institutions nationwide, these are a minority of students, particularly at community colleges. For Virginia public four-year institutions it is still a reasonable student cohort with which to start. It is, however, data that are not really actionable. In order to better understand who is not graduating, we need to review and compare various subcohorts of students to look at more discrete groups of students and their success. SCHEV has created and published dozens of these for review and study. Below, we have an example in Table 3. Notice that the heading specifies ?Completed, Original Institution.? This is consistent with rates provided previously. However, given our statewide student-level data, we can also consider student outcomes for students that transfer between four-year colleges and universities as in the next table. Table 3: Degree Completion, Original Institution
Table 4: Degree Completion, Anywhere
As can be seen, graduation rates typically increase by three to four percentage points when transfer within Virginia is included. When transfer outside Virginia is included, we tend to see a slightly smaller increase using data from the National Student Clearinghouse. More importantly, in both subcohort tables we can see significant differentials in graduation rates based on family income at entry. It should come as no surprise that students from wealthier families tend to be more likely graduate. Readers are urged to consider that these tables are an overall view of student outcomes reflecting 15 unique institutions before leaping to conclusions about the low success rates of students with Pell grants. It is instructive to note that Pell grant recipients are not distributed equally among institutions. In fact, the percentage of students with Pell grants ranges from 12% to 68% at the public institutions where the institutions with the lowest graduation rates have the greatest proportion of Pell students and the institutions with the highest graduation rates have the lowest proportion of Pell students. Below, in Table 5, are six-year graduation rates for each institution, for each of the last eight cohorts of students that have had at least six-years to graduation. This table includes graduations from any Virginia public or private, nonprofit institution. Table 5: Six-year Graduation Rate
Institutions of specific note in Table 5 include Christopher Newport University which has increased its six graduation rate from 59% to 79% just from 2001-02 to 2007-08. In fact, in reviewing earlier cohorts, we see that Christopher Newport has actually increased from 44% for the 1995-96 entering cohort. Likewise, George Mason University, reported above with an increase from 60% to 70%, has increased from 51% for the 1995-96 entering cohort. Norfolk State University?s 1995-96 entering cohort experienced a 24% six-year graduation rate, compared to 31% for 2000-01, and 39% in the 2007-08. Overall we see increases and stability in the graduation rates of first-time students, enrolled full-time at entry.

Student Success Index

In 2013, SCHEV developed the Student Success Index (SSI) as a response to the criticisms that the traditional GRS was too narrowly focused. SSI is a single measure of student success and progress that combines first-time in college, new transfers, and full- and part-time students at entry. For a full discussion of the measure, please see the appendix. Essentially, we group students into the four groups described (first-time, fulltime; first-time, part-time, transfer, full-time; transfer, part-time), assign a standardized number of years for expected completion, and then compute an overall index of the percentage of student either having completed within the standards, or still enrolled at the end of the standards. Further, since the measure is focused on students, it considers completion at any Virginia institution a success. Table 6: Student Success Index
As one can see from the table, the SSI results in higher numbers than the GRS rates. This is despite the fact that all students entering the institution in a given year are reported in the measure. One of the keys to this measure is recognizing that students entering with different plans and at different stages will take shorter or longer periods of time to graduate. Further, we count as successes students who are still continuing their enrollment in the last years of each component of the measure. As we have already seen, students may take as long as 10 years to complete. In fact, a small number will take up to twice that length of time. In the discussion of graduation rates, too often responsibility is placed solely on the institution. In all fairness, we must keep in mind that college students are (generally) legal adults with ability to take independent action that does not optimize their chances for success. Students have the decisive role in completing college ? it is up to them to do the work. Table 7 provides the graduation rates for various categories of the number of credits earned with a grade ?C? or better within the first year and 60 credits within the first two years. The data clearly indicate that once students successfully complete two years? worth of credit, they are virtually assured to graduate from the institution at which they started. At the institution level, we typically observe a range of 89% to 99% completion rate for students completing 60 credits within the first two years with a ?C? or better. Table 7: Degree Completion at Original Institution

Closing Comments

Virginia?s graduation rates have improved slowly over time, as has overall degree production. However, this has come with a parallel increase in student debt. The percentage of bachelor degree graduates with student debt has increased from 53% to 57% between 2007-08 and 2011-12. Over the same period, median debt has increased from $17,100 to $24,354. Given the slow, but steady, increase in graduation rates, it is probably safe to say assume that most, if not all, of the no- or low-cost actions to improve graduation rates have been implemented. If the Commonwealth wishes to direct a focused effort to improve student success and graduation rates, it should be done through adequate general fund appropriations and not left to be funded through tuition increases. In the same line of thought, noting that Pell grant recipients have the lowest graduation rates, it is likely that focusing additional resources on supporting those students may have the greatest effect on student success. Such support could include additional financial aid, but may also include enhanced student services, both academic and non-academic. Enhanced non-academic support may include childcare, greater levels of work-study support, and efforts to reduce food insecurity. There is a growing body of research pointing towards food-insecurity as a campus issue and at least 120 campuses nationwide have reported establishing food banks. The Commonwealth is fortunate to have some of the highest levels of graduation rates in the nation. Improving them will be no small effort. However, targeted effort for specific student groups at each college may yield desired gains, but most efforts will need financial support. ?

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