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A New Set of Metrics for a New Higher Ed Reality

AUDIO | A New Set of Metrics for a New Higher Ed Reality
As the federal and state governments begin to look at institutional performance for rankings and funding, respectively, those bodies should seek out different analytics systems that better-track the progress of non-traditional students.

The following interview is with Allyson Handley, president of the University of Maine at Augusta. Success metrics have emerged as a major hot-button topic across the postsecondary space, especially given the federal government’s movement toward creating an industry-wide ranking system. Last year, UMA adopted a set of metrics specifically designed to measure non-traditional student progress and success. In this interview, Handley discusses some of the reasons why UMA decided to go this route and shares her thoughts on how institutions that mainly serve non-traditional students can make sure their work is recognized by the statisticians as well as the students.

1. What are the most significant problems with the current success metrics when it comes to measuring and displaying success of non-traditional students?

The current federal metrics for progress related to student achievement is an Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) which was set up many years ago as a way of appropriately measuring progress for students who were primarily at residential institutions serving traditional students. At the time, 75 per cent of all these students that were pursuing higher education in the United States would have fit that definition of full-time, first-time, residential students. But now, 20 years later, the statistics are flipped and only about 25 per cent of all the students in the United States who are pursuing higher education degrees or certificates are first-time freshmen in residential settings.

The federal reporting guidelines of IPEDS, which we and every other higher ed institution report, don’t really tell the story about an individual institution, but more importantly they don’t acknowledge the progress that part-time and non-residential students are making towards their degrees. That really led us to have a parallel universe of metrics and data that would more fully tell the story about an institution like UMA.

2. How do these problems influence institutions that largely serve these student populations?

The problems are twofold. Due to the reporting and the report cards that are public, based on the surveys and the information that we supply, students look to those report cards. If they’re traditional-aged students, their families are looking at whether they should attend institution X, Y or Z, based on [factors like a school’s retention rate.] But if the retention rate for UMA is calculated based upon first-time/full-time freshmen and whether they continue at UMA, that only accounts for 14 percent of UMA’s entire population of close to 6,000 students. It’s not a fair comparison for students in any walk of life making a decision.

More importantly, state and local legislatures track that data because they are making fiscal decisions about state monies. When a state legislator sees that institution X has retention figures that are different or lower than what some other institutions are demonstrating, that’s going to result an inaccurate view about the institution, and it has real-time fiscal implications when funding decisions are made.

Now we and other institutions like UMA spend a lot of time educating legislators, appearing before education committees in the state, to try to tell the story, but we believe it’s more powerful to have an additional, parallel set of data.

We are very impressed with the Student Learning Progress Model (SLPM) that was developed by now-retired Dr. Gary Rice at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

3. How does the student learning progress model differ from the traditional statistics, and how does it better allow you to tell that story and to tell the story with numbers?

The big difference is that it does look at progress to goals. It uses metrics that take into account part-time students who wouldn’t fit into the measurements IPEDS constructed and wouldn’t be provided any feedback about their real progress.

If I’m a young single mother and I have two small children and I work part-time and my goal for the upcoming academic year is to take three courses over the course of the year and to pass them, if I accomplish that goal successfully, that’s an incredible accomplishment. The beauty of the SLPM is it is able not only to provide cumulative data about how far did students move along the continuum of graduation, but it also enables you to provide individual success feedback to the students that you’re serving.

Typically the students that UMA serves would not be graduating in four, five or six years. The majority complete their degrees as part-time students, somewhere in the vicinity of six-to-eight years. Now given that the goal of the student was to continue to hold a job and continue to raise their family, the time dimension—which is very much embedded in IPEDS model of four years to graduation for a bachelor’s degree—is rendered more flexible in the SLPM.

4. How can the SLPM change the story when it comes to performance-based funding and consumer ratings for higher ed institutions that mainly serve non-traditional students? Is this an analytic set that could be applied to all schools regardless of who they serve?

Absolutely.  It’s particularly meaningful for institutions that have a majority of part-time students and mature students who are attempting to complete degrees over a more extended period of time. Having this model helps to open up the dialogue and the conversation about accountability and about progress.

Another component of the SLPM that can be tracked with the common national dataset is the possibility in a more expanded model to track student progress [for transfer students and], to actually be able to allocate credit [to the institutions from which they transferred]. The University of Maine System has developed a partial attribution of the state appropriation that is based upon performance.

We were able, as a group of seven institutions working with our chancellor, to really determine that one of the metrics that we wanted to have measured was an acknowledgment about adult or mature students. Those students are fully recognized now through a motion taken by the Board of Trustees at the University of Maine System, that adult and part-time students are considered to be a major priority and a focus population that the University of Maine system wants to serve.

This interview has been edited for length.

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