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Current Student Success Metrics Not Working

Many American higher education institutions are scrambling to improve their overall success metrics based on federal graduation and retention rates. It is becoming increasingly evident, though, that these two measures are not accurately representing student success at many institutions, especially those that serve non-traditional students.

“We graduated about 835 students last year. Of that total, there were less than 200 that counted in any kind of retention or graduation rate,” Steven Gamble, president of Eastern New Mexico University, told the Portales News-Tribune. “In other words we had 600 students who weren’t counted by the federal government.”

Federal retention and graduation rates do not count students who do not complete their degrees within 150 percent of the allotted time (three years for a two-year degree, six years for a four-year degree) or those who transfer in from another institution. As such, these metrics typically do not account for non-traditional students, many of whom are working adults who require more time to complete their credentials or have already earned prior credits.

“If we want to help our students succeed, we have to stop building strategies on traditional students,” J.R. Bjerklie, associate director of institutional research at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, told the Morning Sentinel (Waterville, ME).

With growing concern among schools regarding the lack of relevance in current success measures, especially given the rising popularity of performance-based funding, one institution is looking to move forward with a new system to change the way student success is understood.

The University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) has a poor retention rate of 48 percent and an even lower graduation rate of 17 percent. While administrators at the institution admit that these rates need to be improved, they also argue that the rates do not accurately represent student progress at their institution since many of their students are not accounted for. In fact, only 6 percent of students who enrolled in fall 2012 could be counted in the institution’s graduation and retention statistics.

As such, the University recently adopted the Student Learning Progress Model (SLPM) — created by Associate Vice Provost Gary Rice of the University of Alaska Anchorage — and was able to track the outcomes of students who were not previously counted under the traditional student success metric system.

“Higher education needs a better way to view and understand student success,” Rice told the Morning Sentinel. “And the public needs a better way to understand it, too.”

Rice’s model varies greatly from the traditional performance metrics. It is based on two major elements and takes into account students who are part-time and who have transferred from other institutions. The metric relies on following a student’s learning and tracking their progress and movement over a 10 year period to show their progression of learning over time.

After tracking the 2003 cohort over the last decade using the SLPM, the learning rate for this group ranged from 78 percent to 88 percent during their 10 years at UMA.

“This is a way for us to show that although our students aren’t graduating in four or six years, learning is happening,” Gregory LaPointe, UMA’s executive director of institutional research and planning, told the Morning Sentinel. “They’re not graduating, but they are acquiring knowledge.”