Education analysts respond critically to OU graduation rate disclosures

On Friday, March 30, CapitolBeatOK reported the four-year graduation rate at the University of Oklahoma is 35.7 percent, according to OU-generated data. A March 13 advertisement that ran in four state newspapers had placed the graduation rate at 67.8 percent, touting it as “the highest graduation rate in state history.” 

The higher figure, however, is a six-year graduation rate.  The full text of the OU advertisement was provided in the March 30 story. 

Catherine Bishop, an OU vice president (public affairs) told CapitolBeatOK, “The current 6-year cohort (2005) had a rate of 35.7% at the 4-year point, 62.0% at the 5-year point and 67.8% at the 6-year point. The average time to degree at OU is about 4.8 years, which is the reason for the big jump by the 5-year point.”

In the earlier report, Bishop’s explanation for the data was quoted at length. 

The advertisements and the cost per newspaper, paid for with university funds, were as follows: The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) $17,268.96, Tulsa World ($8,785.08), OU Daily (Norman, $1,355) and The Norman Transcript ($1,160.50). Total cost for the four advertisements was $28,569.54.

In response to CapitolBeatOK’s March 30 report,  Brandon Dutcher, Vice President for Policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA),  commented, “Certainly there’s a time and a place for misdirection and deception in Higher Ed — who can forget Keith Jackson’s 88-yard tight-end reverse, or Boise State’s masterful two-point conversion? — but this is not one of them.
“Leaving aside the question of whether 67.8 percent is something to boast about (and I suppose it is when compared to, say, Rogers State’s six-year rate of 11.6% or UCO’s 35.7%), the problem here is that OU misled people. OU describes itself as ‘a four-year public university.’ When the man on the street hears ‘graduation rate,’ in his mind he’s thinking four years. Indeed, many people will doubtless be surprised to learn that there even is such a thing as a ‘six-year graduation rate.’

“There’s nothing wrong with mentioning the six-year rate. But with $28,569 and all that space, how can a four-year university not even mention its four-year graduation rate?
“OU took money from taxpayers and used that money to mislead those taxpayers.”

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Jonathan Robe, administrative director, Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) was asked if most people assume, when they hear of a “graduation rate” without explanation, that the reference is to a four-year rate. 

Robe replied, “I think that is correct. The U.S. Department of Education in its data assumes the ‘normal’ time is four years. Traditionally, what a bachelor’s program means or anticipates is that a student will earn a degree in four years.

“What is anticipated, particularly in the case of parents who went to school 20 or 25 or 30 years ago, is that students on a four-year track to graduation. Also, the general assumption of most traditional students is that they are in a four-year program. The ascendancy of non-traditional students is not fully accounted for in the understandings of many people.”

Last year, CCAP collaborated with OCPA on a study challenging “conventional wisdom” about higher education policy. 

Robe contends it is reasonable to expect officials to be clear about four-year or five- and six-year rates when disclosing such information. He said, “The burden lies with school officials to be clear about that. But that is something that is confusing. The U.S. Department of Education is now collecting 8-year data, seemingly to capture every possible student and improve the data.”

Asked how OU’s graduation rates for four, five and six years stack up with other universities around the country, he reflected, “One problem is that when you deal with the U.S. Department of Education data, the information is a bit dated. For all of those – four-year, five-year and six-year graduation rates — OU comes out better than the average, but that’s not to say the graduation data is great.” OU’s graduation rates are higher than those at most publicly-funded institutions. 

Robe continued, “The government [U.S. Department of Education] data is ‘clear,’ but you have to look for it. One thing basically that is learned from the data is that if people don’t get their degree after six years, they’re probably not going to get it.

“Many students are now, in fact, non-traditional, and the graduation rates for transfers are murky. If you can account for that, it might even improve graduation rates.”

CapitolBeatOK asked Robe to comment on issues raised by the presentation of the OU graduation data, and any additional observations about higher education performance, or related issues. He said, “A real problem for our organization, a mantra in fact, is that Higher Education graduation rates are just part of the concern. Colleges and universities are in the business of disseminating information, at least in theory.

“However, beyond vague generalities, when forced to disseminate information to themselves – honestly and forthrightly – so that students or potential students can make decisions, institutions of Higher Education fall short. They know they are benefitting from being less than precise. Information that shows imperfections or that reflects unfavorably is withheld or not disclosed. 

“Graduation rates can go up, but how can we be certain that the quality of education is actually going up? Nationally, literacy among college graduates is actually lower than it was in the early 1990s. Despite increases in graduation rates in higher education, it is not clear that the quality of education for those graduating has increased.”  
Disclosure Note: In 2009, OCPA was founding sponsor of CapitolBeatOK, which in 2011 became a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.