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Degrees and Graduation - Issue Briefs - Publication Number: IB98-2 June 17, 1998 Page 2

Which freshmen constitute a cohort?

The most common operational definition of the freshmen cohort is beginning freshmen enrolled at the fall census date (probably about the 4th week). Of the terms in this definition, beginning freshmen is probably the more difficult concept. Typically included in beginning freshmen are (1) those who began in the summer term and continued to enroll in the fall and (2) those with advanced standing due to dual-credit courses or certifying examinations who are nonetheless classified as first-time students.

Generally, the group includes those who are enrolling for the first time, as a high school graduate, in the fall semester whether or not they enrolled in the summer. Most often, those who began in a winter term never appear in graduation reports. In addition, there is an increasing number of institutions that do not fit a traditional academic year model and who establish an arbitrary period in which to identify first-time freshmen.

The term freshmen can also be misleading as many students now begin college with credit hours earned through dual-credit coursework or examination-based advanced standing. At the University of Missouri, the operational definition of beginning freshmen has included students with junior class status.

Another common distinction is enrollment status. Many analysts either restrict reporting to those enrolled as full-time students in that first term or report an overall rate and rates for full-time and part-time students. The reader will note that there is an assumption that initial status is treated as if it predicted enrollment status at all future points.

The penultimate factor that will be discussed under the general topic of freshmen cohort is admission status. Most institutions have degree-seeking and non-degree classifications and include only degree-seeking students when calculating graduation rate. Some institutions also admit some students under the condition that their continued enrollment is dependent on demonstrated performance in class. Many do not count these students as part of the cohort even though they may be degree-seeking.

And last, it is important to consider cohort year as social and economic trends can influence graduation rates as do changes in the academic "quality" of a freshman class due to changing admissions policies or supply and demand relationships.

Which students are graduates?

The nuances of determining the dividend are no less challenging than those of determining the divisor. They involve time, transfer, special service, and graduation as one type of successful completion.

Graduation Rate Interval

In determining whether the cohort students have completed a degree, the most obvious decision to make is interval of time allotted. Should the graduation rate be computed at 4, 6, 8, or even more years? In recent years universities have been successful in increasing awareness that many students take more than 4 years to complete degree requirements. In fact, they may have been too successful. For most institutions, 4-year degrees are actually very common, and about half of all students who will earn degrees do so in 4 years. That is obviously not true for part-time students or for students in degree programs that typically demand more than 120 hours of study. The Rolla campus is a good example of a campus where 4 years to degree is relatively uncommon and 5 years is closer to the norm. Generally accepted practice is to use a 6-year graduation rate and as the figures that accompany this report show, graduation rate patterns tend to plateau at about 6 years. However, even here some use summer as the end of the period and others use spring.

After choosing an interval, several decisions remain regarding adjustments to the cohort. What should be done with students who are still enrolled? What about transferring students? Should there be adjustments for special service circumstances? And, what about those who begin graduate or professional school study before receiving a bachelors degree? The problems of outcomes and transfers do become intertwined.

Successful Outcomes

All would agree that a bachelors degree earned at the home institution is a successful outcome, but most would also recognize the transition to professional school or graduate school as an equivalent outcome. There is generally more disagreement over those awarded certificates and associate degree recipients, especially when they continue to study toward a baccalaureate and do not finish. While these are not internal reporting problems for the University, they do impact comparisons.

Another group which poses a problem is those who continue to enroll as undergraduates. How should they be counted? As an outcome, they are somewhere between graduating students and transfers. Most analyses simply report the percentage of students who continue to enroll, but do not include them as "successful completions". And last, do we report drop-outs who did so in good academic standing different from those who did not?


Probably the most difficult issue in graduation rate methodology is treatment of students known to have transferred to another institution. At one end of a continuum are students who enrolled initially with the full intention of transferring and are even enrolled in a program designed specifically to support this transfer. If this student transfers and earns a degree, how can that outcome be less than a native student earning a degree? At the other end of the continuum is a student who leaves on academic suspension and takes a remedial class at a community college, that they subsequently drop. How can that student's outcome be seen as a successful transfer?

Because a baccalaureate program routinely spans 6 or more years, the attendance pattern from matriculation to graduation can be very complicated. How should transferring students who return be counted? Should they be counted to the institution's advantage, as degree recipients if they earn a degree and as transferring students if they do not? If a student drops out in their first year only to return for one semester that happens to be the one used for the report, are they continuing? If the transferring student only takes one course from the new institution before dropping out for good, are they counted as a transfer? Do we then require that they successfully complete 12 or more credit hours before being counted as a transferring student? All are defensible positions and all have been used in the computation of graduation rates.

Until recently, many of these issues were moot. Many students did transfer, but there was no reliable way to follow their academic career except by very labor intensive work with cooperative institutions. All that has changed with the routine collection of student level enrollment information at the state and national level. The Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education collects much information on all students enrolled at public institutions in Missouri. This information is used to accurately track transfer behavior, but is limited to public, Missouri institutions. At the national level, the National Student Loan Clearinghouse for now offers a service, Transfer-Track, that supports basic analysis of transfer behavior. These records include both public and private institutions, and the number of participating institutions is rapidly growing. The state records are currently superior because degree-status of transfer students can be determined.

Special Exceptions/Exemptions

Another issue that affects graduation rates is the exemption of some students, who were in the cohort initially, from reporting. Institutions with strong military history and certain universities with religious affiliations have successfully argued that those on active duty or service should be exempted from graduation rate computations. It is a reasonable position, but one that is very difficult for most institutions to effectively monitor. University of Missouri students might be on Mormon missions, or might have been called to active military service, but that would not typically be known. Other students reasonably exempted from reporting are those who have died or been severely handicapped during the undergraduate years. Regretfully, the University may not know of all these instances.

What purpose is served by reporting graduation rate?

Graduation rate is asserted as a key accountability measure and, as such, it is considered to be important consumer information. It clearly fails to meet reasonable standards for either purpose. In addition to all the issues raised in this document about the computation of graduation rate, the central missing element is a reasonably expected performance standard that reflects institutional mission on one hand and exogenous institutional circumstance on the other.

In assessing the reasonable impact of institutional mission on graduation rate, the two most critical factors are often ignored. Those factors are the ability and commitment of the individual student and their purpose in attending. This is in spite of the fact that we know that each is critically important in predicting whether a student will succeed.

The first factor, ability and commitment, is surprisingly routinely ignored even though it clearly shapes the institutional graduation rate. Knowing that a very selective, traditional institution has a high graduation rate is not a good measure of its performance, but rather of its student body. Without knowing what graduation rate should reasonably be expected, there is no standard against which to judge performance. Conversely, a campus with an open enrollment policy should not be viewed harshly for a low graduation rate. A high graduation rate in that circumstance might suggest fairly low academic standards. A fair determination of performance would require the creation of an institutionally appropriate graduation rate. In the absence of standards, most use comparator averages which are very crude measures at best. Even in those few cases where researchers have made an effort to create a performance expectation, they have been unable to factor student commitment. In sum, the informed consumer should know their likelihood of graduating at the institutions they are considering and published graduation rates only succeed in accomplishing this purpose for institutions with very homogeneous student bodies.

A second set of important factors affecting graduation rate that is routinely ignored are exogenous. Among exogenous factors clearly affecting graduation rates are the economy, geographic location, and programmatic offerings. Whether the economy is especially good or bad, it does affect a student's decision to attend and to continue studies once started. Even beyond "home sickness", geographic location is often a problem. Schools in remote locations lose some students who simply choose to transfer to an institution in a community or area more suited to their needs. Schools in urban settings frequently lose students because many competing options exist, and much of their student body tends to take a less traditional approach to reaching their goals. Compounding these influences is type and concentration of program offerings. The Rolla campus is a good example of an institution with a high level of program concentration. If a student changes their mind about studying to be an engineer, then they have less reason to stay in Rolla and may opt for another campus with a wide variety of programs.


Reviewed March 21, 2011.