People start college, expecting four years on campus followed by graduation. Neat and clean. But real life happens — a move, a new job, a new interest. Maybe they get a degree, just somewhere else.
In the numbers game of graduation rates, it doesn't count.
Six national higher education associations and dozens of universities, including the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida, have come out in support of a new voluntary tracking method they say will paint a clearer picture of who is earning degrees. It's called the Student Achievement Measure, funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The federal graduation rate has problems, SAM supporters say, counting only students who enroll full-time, starting and finishing at the same school.
"That's an antiquated or, if you will, archaic view of looking at student progression and completion rates," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "We've long recognized that many university students attend part-time and progress reasonably well … and students increasingly are mobile."
SAM tracks student movement across postsecondary institutions, accounting for a myriad of scenarios.
Graduation rates are important because they help illustrate a school's success. And in states like Florida that have moved toward performance-based funding, they can translate into institutional dollars. But according to National Student Clearinghouse data, more than one in five students finish a degree somewhere other than where they started.
USF has two branch campuses outside its main campus in Tampa — USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee.
Because each branch is accredited separately, a student who transfers slips through the cracks when it comes to calculating graduation rates. The problem came up at recent meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. Board members asked USF leaders why branches didn't have better graduation rates, among other things.
For freshmen starting in 2006, for example, the six-year graduation rate at USF St. Petersburg was 32 percent. But an additional 17 percent graduated from USF in Tampa or Sarasota-Manatee, and another 5 percent got degrees at another Florida university.
In reality, Wilcox said, many state universities are under-reporting graduates by an average of 5 percent.
Clear counts are also an issue at the community college level, where many students leave before they finish associate degrees. Hillsborough Community College has started tracking data to see different outcomes. And local community colleges have teamed with USF to let students transfer credits in reverse, earning more associate degrees.
"It is the extreme minority for a student to come in straight out of high school, start college with us, stay with us and complete in a two or three-year time period," said Nicole Jagusztyn, a research officer at HCC. "That is so rare, it virtually never happens."
Data entry for the first round of SAM will start in October.