This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB Council hears arguments for, against graduation rates as effective measure

Published: March 3, 2005

Contributing Editor

Are rates of graduation a reliable measure of how well a university is doing?

That was the question that President John B. Simpson posed—and answered—during the UB Council meeting yesterday.

Simpson presented a briefing that looked at graduation rates, commonly considered a key measure of institutional success, then talked about why they are and sometimes are not an effective way to evaluate universities.

Measuring graduation rates, which became federal policy with the 1990 Student Right to Know Act, "seems on the surface to be very simple-minded, very straightforward, and very important in thinking about institutional success," Simpson said.

But, he added, "perhaps in some ways, it is not the best measure."

That's because in tracking the percentage of students who graduate in four, five and six years, the method includes only those students who enter the institution as full-time, first-time freshmen. These groups, or cohorts, exclude students who enter or leave the school in other ways.

"If students transfer out of the university, whether or not they ever finish a degree elsewhere, they count as a non-graduate. If students transfer in and complete a degree, they are not counted in the cohort that's graduating," Simpson said. "Just to give you a perspective, a little more than one-third of students we get coming in each year are not native freshman."

Research also has identified three categories of factors that affect graduation rates—institutional characteristics, student characteristics and college experiences—and "on these, the University of Buffalo does not do well," Simpson said.

"Privates do better than publics; large, complex institutions, especially urban institutions, do less well than small, non-urban institutions; more select institutions do better than less select ones; and those with academic emphases on engineering and the sciences tend to do less well than those with academic emphases on liberal arts," he said.

In terms of student characteristics, Simpson noted that while institutional retention and graduation rates "are attributed directly to the kinds of students you have in your population, as I think about this—the kinds of students we have—I think about what our mission is, and our mission is not to graduate the maximum number of students in four or six years."

Characteristics that promote higher graduation rates include not only high standardized-test scores, but also higher family incomes, and populations of students who live on campus, work only on campus, who are young and who are white.

"We have at UB a higher percentage of students, by a lot, who have PELL grants (federal grants based on income) than any other AAU institution, with the exception of Stony Brook. We are serving a student body—and I endorse this entirely—that is not economically advantaged," Simpson said. "We serve a particular kind of student body."

Yet, even without some of the more positive factors, UB has done "better than the national average, but not as good as other AAU publics" in terms of four-, five- and six-year graduation rates, according to Simpson. A chart of schools within the SUNY system, Simpson pointed out, shows also that UB is "ahead of Stony Brook, co-equal with Albany, considerably behind Binghamton, yet very much ahead of all SUNY four-year institutions."

Binghamton, he noted, is "more selective in terms of who is admitted, is in a small town and is primarily a residential institution. Less than a quarter of our students live on campus."

Another chart compared actual graduation rates at UB during the 1990s to predicted rates of graduation, based on some of the same student characteristics, including standardized-test scores, high school grade-point average, gender and ethnicity, as well as school size and selectivity.

Here again, UB performed better than expected. The four-year graduation rate at UB was higher than predicted in five of the 10 years examined (1993 and 1996-99). The six-year actual graduation rates showed UB well above the predicted rate for all eight years examined, 1990-97.

"I think these data are important if you actually look at what you might expect given your institution, the characteristics of your students and the characteristics of your enterprise. These show we are doing actually a reasonable job," Simpson said.

The quality of UB students is improving: Mean SAT scores have risen from 1137 in 1999 to 1183 in 2004. There also are increasing numbers of students enrolled at UB who are from the highest selectivity category, a rate that has risen from 32 percent in 1999 to 51 percent in 2004.

Yet, ultimately, UB should strive to make public education accessible to the public, Simpson said.

"I think the institution is doing the things it ought to be doing to increase graduation rates. And yet at the same time, my view is that I don't view graduation rates as a primary goal in determining what my institution does, how it behaves, who it serves and who it deals with," Simpson said. "It's not clear to me why it's of any importance whatsoever how quickly students get through a university. Second, there is a way to boost your graduation rates tremendously. It's easy. You do all your recruiting, all your admission, with students from backgrounds of privilege," Simpson said.

In other business, council members heard that a recent survey by the UB Office of Student Affairs showed that three-quarters of the student body favors "a stable tuition policy" such as the tuition guarantee policy that is part of Gov. George E. Pataki's budget proposal. Simpson said he has spoken locally and in Albany in favor of the policy, and noted that it would provide "students, families and, most importantly from my point of view, the university with some predictability about funding in the future."

UB Council Chair Jeremy M. Jacobs agreed.

"We're talking about the largest payroll in Western New York; we're talking about the largest economic impact on this community," he said. "To put that in something that is not predictable is a scary thing. We should not subject this area that we live in to that uncertainty."

James A. (Beau) Willis, chief of staff in the Office of the President and interim executive vice president for finance and operations, also spoke about the proposed executive budget, which includes $26 million for the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences to relocate to the South Campus. If the legislature approves the funding, UB will add it to the $19 million in capital funds already allocated for the $52 million project, bringing it to "within five or six million dollars of completing the project."

"We're now looking at private fund raising, as well as federal grants" to close that gap, he added.

However, Willis said the renovation of Acheson Hall and other construction for the move wouldn't start until July 1, 2006, and would last until July 1, 2010, or four years total.

Finally, Willis reported that the amount of money raised through contracts and grants between July 1, 2004, and Jan. 31, 2005, increased by approximately $3.6 million, or 4.5 percent, for a total of $83.7 million, while private fund raising totaled about $15.4 million, a 12.5 percent increase over the same time period the previous year.

The meeting was the first for two new council members—Cynthia A. Ambres and Mark J. Czarnecki-appointed to the council by Pataki. (See related story in this issue.)