Higher ed panel: Tracking graduation rates a logistical quagmire

TRENTON – The Senate Higher Education Committee began to tackle the surprisingly complex issue of tracking graduation rates Thursday.

The committee took testimony from witnesses who presented a list of factors that complicate what one might expect to be a straightforward process: Are the students full or part time? Are they starting at four-year schools and transferring? Are they moving from two—year community colleges to other two-year schools or to four-year institutions? Do you track students who linger in classrooms for six, eight, 10 years or longer?

The need to concentrate on this issue was made clear by the panel members.

“We need to get data around what is happening to these individuals,’’ said Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. “We need to make sure we are targeting resources efficiently, creating the right incentives, creating the right tracking data.”

Chair Sen. Sandra Cunningham pointed to one example concerning a scholarship program with which she was involved. It mandated graduation within four years because they learned that otherwise students would go to school six or seven years and drop out.

Cunningham is the sponsor of a bill, S2649, which would require reporting of the graduation rates of state tuition aid grant recipients. The bill, and its Assembly companion, have gone through committees.

The Senate bill, as amended, would require each institution by Nov. 1 of each year, to provide the graduation data necessary for the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority to post the information on its website.

But the witnesses from the fields of academia made it clear today that there is no consensus on the term “graduation rate.’’

Testifying live by video from Washington, D.C., Patrick Kelly of the National Association of Higher Education Management Systems made it clear how problematic that is.

The problem with federal methodology, he explained, is that it tracks where full-time students begin their first fall semester, but students don’t necessarily stay full time in the same place

“Try in your state data system to account for mobility within the state,” he advised.

“We need to have a better idea,’’ Cunningham said, “about young people, if they are graduating, how do we know if they are graduating, and what’s the best way to find out.”

Today’s fact-finding session was a first step in the process. Higher ed panel: Tracking graduation rates a logistical quagmire