The Complicated Issue of Defining College Student “Success”

Over the weekend, tweets from higher ed academics and critics were circulating about a recently published article by Jon Marcus in The Hechinger Report.

The article, “Most college students don’t graduate in four years, so colleges and the government count six years as ‘success,’” claimed that colleges have moved the finish line to give themselves credit for success if students graduate in six years. Sometimes, that standard may even be eight years, which is what consumers find reported on the College Scorecard.

Mr. Marcus writes that these metrics are like airlines saying they’re good, even if half of their flights take twice as long as scheduled to arrive at their destinations. Clearly, Mr. Marcus is one of those individuals who thinks that the mission of all colleges is to only educate 18-year-olds who arrive from high school fully prepared, ready to attend college and graduate in four years.

The situation is much more complicated than that scenario, and those who write about that aspect of higher education may be correct. They may also be wrong.

The most recognized way of tracking graduation rates was to track only the percentage of students who matriculated at a college as first-time, full-time students who graduated in four years. However, transfer students and part-time students were not counted in these success metrics. This population essentially represented students who graduated from high school and attended an institution full-time as freshmen.

When colleges were asked to submit graduation rates, many wanted to track against a five-year rate to allow for students taking leaves of absence or athletes who redshirted a year because of an injury. Senator Ted Kennedy made a change to track college graduation rates at 150% of the four-year rate or six years.

Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of college advocacy nonprofit Complete College America, is quoted in the Marcus article. She states, “Universities actually work against a four-year completion. They’ve added credits to graduate, because, why not, if they’ve got six years?”

This statement does not represent thinking from any of the colleges with which I am familiar. State-funded institutions do not want someone to take six years to graduate because the state is subsidizing every student who attends. Students who graduate in four years cost them less than students who take six years to graduate.

Also, students who are enrolled more than four years in order to graduate displace other students from spots in classes and campus housing. If everyone graduated in four years, colleges would be able to house more students on campus.

The state of Texas has recognized excess semester credit hours attempted when a student seeks to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree as an area of needed improvement. Their 60x30TX Strategic Plan required all colleges to track metrics and set statewide benchmarks of 12 excess semester credit hours (SCH) in 2020, six excess SCHs in 2025, and three excess SCHs in 2030. These numbers are published annually, and colleges are expected to meet these targets.

Recognizing that students lose semester credit hours when they transfer from one institution to another, Texas created their Texas Core Curriculum that must be offered by all public institutions in the state of Texas. This core curriculum of 42 semester credit hours was implemented in the fall of 2014; it represents lower-level courses that must be included in the curriculum at all Texas public institutions.

There are no exceptions to the 42 semester credit hours. That helps to facilitate transfers from two-year to four-year, four-year to four-year, or four-year to two-year without students losing credits for those courses.

The two initiatives from the state of Texas solve multiple problems. The Core Curriculum reduces the risk that students who transfer from one state institution to another lose academic credits. The excess semester credit hours tracking initiative will force colleges to become more involved with students’ academic advising, particularly as it relates to changing majors.

It is likely that other states are finding ways to address these issues. In fact, California’s Governor Gavin Newsome just signed legislation that will standardize lower level curriculum and course numbering across all of the California publicly funded colleges. Rather than setting goals and reporting on them annually, some states may encourage formal transfer agreement memorandums of understanding between their two-year colleges and their four-year colleges.

One of the reasons the elite colleges and universities are designated as such is because they are highly selective in their admissions process. Many of them accept fewer than 10% of those students who apply for admission.

The academic credentials of those schools’ newly admitted freshmen would indicate that they are probably among those best prepared for the rigors of a college curriculum. Their four-year graduation rates reflect that preparation. Many of their graduates go on to graduate school, so taking more than four years to graduate will delay them from the next step in their education.

Non-elite private institutions generally compete with other private institutions for the same student pool. They recognize that graduate rates impact most of the college rankings. Providing advising systems to help their students get through an academic program in four years is more important to them than the extra tuition paid by students who take more than four years.

What’s unaddressed by critics and the Department of Education is whether graduation rates are the proper measurement tool for institutional quality and student success. It’s possible that there is another system that is more appropriate for measuring student success.

In the two decades that I have dedicated to the analysis of adult (25 and older) student persistence and completion, particularly in online courses and the degrees offered by open enrollment institutions, I have the following observations.

  • Older, working adult students initially “try” a program at a school by taking a course or two instead of enrolling full-time. If it isn’t offered at a time that meets their schedules or they think it’s too hard, they stop attending altogether or go to another school.
  • Many adult students need the flexibility and availability of online courses with more frequent start dates than the traditional trimester or quarterly system offered by most colleges. If those adult learners are limited to fewer starts, they may complete their courses at a slower pace, because work and family commitments are more important than school.
  • Many adult students dropped out or stopped out of college. They earned credits somewhere. Schools that understand this principle encourage these students to submit transcripts for transfer credits and do not charge them for the analysis.
  • Adult students who do not submit transcripts for credit are likely attending another institution and have not decided which school they will use to matriculate.
  • Monetary issues often influence a student’s decision to remain in school, particularly if he/she is no longer a dependent.
  • Employer reimbursement for courses may not be up front. Flexible financing terms can be helpful to students facing this situation.
  • Federal student aid funding requires a student to be at least a “half-time” student, and maximum funding requires them to be “full-time.” This requirement can work against an older student who is entering or returning to college for the first time in several years.

I’m not a disbeliever in graduation rates. I just believe they’re not the right measurement for every institution. Here are a few thoughts and recommendations:

  • Create four categories for institutions, based on the percentage of full-time and part-time students that they serve:
    • >=75% full-time
    • >50% and <75% full-time
    • >25% and <50% full-time
    • <25% full-time
  • Report the data listed below in these four categories and on an aggregate basis.
  • Require institutions to report their graduation rates for full-time students and completion rates for part-time students who have completed at least 15 semester credit hours (one full semester). A part-time student cohort year would start in the year when 15 semester credit hours have been completed. Part-time students with less than 15 semester credit hours completed will not be included in the rates.
  • Report the graduation rates for full-time students at 100% of either four-year or two-year completion, 150% of four-year or two-year completion, and 200% of four-year or two-year completion.
  • Report the completion rates for part-time students at <=6 years, >6 years and <8 years, >8 years and <=10 years.
  • Disclose mean and median transfer semester credit hours applied for by full-time and part-time transfer students.
  • Disclose mean and median transfer semester credit hours granted to full-time and part-time transfer students.
  • Calculate and disclose mean and median transfer semester credit hour percentage lost due to the student’s inability to apply to the degree he or she selected.
  • Calculate and submit to the Department of Education a hypothetical completion rate for all students who transferred semester hour credit, based on the mean semester hour transfer credit applied for and the mean semester hour transfer credit granted. These calculations do not have to be disclosed but are for future Department analysis.

These recommendations are meant to be used as a discussion point. America’s colleges and universities cannot be neatly fitted into a one-size-for-all bucket. Some educational institutions are residential, and some serve commuting students. Some serve online students; some serve students who are non-degree students; some serve elite students; and some serve low-income students. Some offer classes one-at-a-time and know that many students will transfer those credits elsewhere. That’s okay.

Assuming that metrics that measure the success of full-time, traditional students (ages 18-24) are suitable for part-time, working adult students is illogical, elitist, and ill-willed. It is time that people acknowledge this fact and work together to find disclosures that are realistic for consumers based on their chosen category.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence