Are college grad rates “bad data?”

Speadsheet with college data/
What data are you supposed to use?

There is a guest post on College Inc by Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, arguing that college graduation rates are bad data.

No, they aren’t.

To crib from the gun rights advocates, the information isn’t bad, it’s how it’s being used that is bad. For some reason, Ms. McGuire seems to think that people are using graduation rates to decide if Harvard or Trinity Washington is a better school.

No, they aren’t.

The sad fact is that most students applying to college aren’t using them at all. Even if the students are aware that the colleges they are looking at have lower graduation rates, they assume that they will be among those that graduate.

I think it’d bad data for Ms. McGuire because she’s worried that people won’t know to compare apple to apples and oranges to oranges.

Take the case of Trinity Washington. If you look it up on CollegeResults.org you’ll see that it has six-year graduation rate of 37.8 %. If you compare it to similar colleges (as defined by The Education Trust), it ranks second from the bottom of 16 schools. So I could see why she might be concerned over the use of graduation rates.

However, this really needs to be thought through.

So you have a student who is interested enough in actual data for college comparisons and goes to CollegeResults.org or a similar site to look up an institution. The student gets to a screen that shows a college ranks next to last and then what? Decides immediately to cross Washington Trinity off her list?

Do you think that they wouldn’t notice that 63% of Trinity Washington’s freshman receive Pell grants compared to only 34% of those at the school ranked first? They wouldn’t notice that 76.2% of the students are underrepresented minority compared to 32.1% of the first ranked school?

If they made it this far, why wouldn’t they notice?

Of course, they might also notice that the third ranked school, Rosemont, has 60.0% Pell grant recipients among its freshmen, has 51.0% underrepresented minority, and like Trinity Washington is predominately a female school. But it has a 61.9% graduation rate compared to Trinity Washington’s 37.8%.

At this point are graduation rates still “bad data?”

No, they aren’t.

It is an important piece of information. Does the potential student decide she has enough information at this point and forgets all about Trinity Washington? Possibly, but not likely. After all, there is plenty of other information available.

Does being in Pennsylvania versus Washington DC make a difference? Rosemont College is about half the size of Trinity Washington. Trinity Washington also has over 50% more part-time students than Rosemont. College admission tests are required at Rosemont but only recommended at Trinity Washington.

What if I’m interested in International Relations? Trinity Washington offers it (and is in DC), Rosemont doesn’t.?  Maybe I want to play softball which is available at Trinity Washington but not at Rosemont.

Despite the differences in graduation rates, there are other reasons to consider Trinity Washington.

But what if I don’t care about athletics or how many people are in my class, want to major in English, and really don’t care where I live? Would comparing the graduation rates between the two schools still be using “bad data?”


If graduation rates have some relevance in your college search, check out the 50-50 College Listing.

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