Defending a College with a 0% Graduation Rate?

Flickr/ Our Lady of Disgrace

This post was originally published on the Higher Education Initiative blog, Higher Ed Watch.

It’s not often that you see members of Congress (or anyone for that matter) defending a college with a zero percent graduation rate. But that is exactly what is happening for Oregon’s Marylhurst University. Both of the state’s Senators and three of its representatives recently wrote a letter to the Department of Education defending the University against claims from the Department’s own College Scorecard that it has a 0% graduation rate.

Zero percent is certainly at odds with the rhetoric on the website of this small, open-admission, Catholic liberal arts school. Student success is in the first sentence of a lengthy and passionate case for cultivating ethical, engaged leaders capable of taking on the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

But talk is cheap and self-promotion is easy, which is why Republicans and Democrats have been calling for better, more comparable data that students can use to inform their college-decision making processes. Marylhurst, however, isn’t alone in tooting its horn. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning recognized the university as a national leader for its "outstanding commitment to the expansion of lifelong learning opportunities and for innovative efforts to improve access and quality in academic programs for adult learners."

It turns out that adult learners are the problem. Or, more accurately, how the federal government counts (or doesn’t count) adult learners. The College Scorecard reports graduation rate data only of first time, full time students. However, just three percent of Marylhurst’s students fall into that category. The vast majority are working adults taking upper division courses part time in order to complete a degree started elsewhere. And these students seem to be doing well. Out of 911 undergrads enrolled last year, 204 graduated. But the success of these students doesn’t count, at least not according to the federal government. Disregarding the majority of students at an institution is not fair. Not fair to the institution, not fair to students.

The narrow graduation rate definition, codified in the 1990 Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act, envisions an 18-year-old who is continuously enrolled full time at the same institution from day one to graduation. Given the 59% of students that attend more than one higher education institution over the course of their educational careers and the nearly 40% who attend part time, the 1990 definition bears little to no resemblance to the reality of higher education today. This disconnect has been widely acknowledged and lamented by colleges, researchers, and policymakers alike. Just last fall, the House Education and Workforce Committeeheld a hearing on college data where Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Chair of the Committee, acknowledged the “tremendous problem” of students who do not fit in the shrinking first time, full time box.

Thankfully, there has been some legislative and executive action alongside all the hand wringing. In 2008, Congress authorized a committee to advise the Secretary of Education on graduation rates for community colleges that serve large numbers of part time and transfer students. After reviewing the committee’s final recommendations, the Department announced that it would include part time and returning students in the graduation rate for all institutions, not just community colleges. A few weeks ago, the plans to collect these graduation rate data for the 2014-2015 school year were released for final public comment. It looks like we will soon (finally) have federal graduation rates that better reflect the experiences of today’s students.

The new graduation rate data will be a huge help to Marylhurst and other institutions that serve part time and returning students. But while members of Congress may have fixed the problem that they created in 1990, they have also created new ones. Most damaging is a 2008 law that makes collecting graduation rate information for part time and returning student information unnecessarily burdensome for institutions. More on that in an upcoming post.