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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

March 24, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Understanding the quirks in state’s college completion rate

Washington’s public four-year colleges have long bragged that their completion rates — that is, the percentage of students who finish their degrees and graduate — are among the best in the nation. And according to a federal postsecondary analysis of data, they are.

But a new study by the respected National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies college degrees to employers and also collects tremendous amounts of data on college completion, appears to show that Washington’s six-year graduation rate for four-year public colleges is not, in fact, the nation’s best — that it’s worse than the national average.

How can that be?

It’s a quirk in the way colleges are classified. In 2007, a few of Washington’s community colleges started offering applied baccalaureate degrees, or four-year degrees. Currently, 11 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges do so, and more of these degrees are likely to be approved in the future. Some of these colleges have also dropped the word “community” from their names.

So, are they still two-year colleges, or not?

According to the way colleges are classified, they’re now four-year colleges — even though only a  fraction of the students they graduate get baccalaureate degrees.

Entities such as the National Student Clearinghouse have begun including the graduation rates for all students at these colleges into the state’s overall graduation rate for four-year schools, said Paul Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents, which represents the state’s six four-year public schools.

And that’s skewing Washington’s numbers downward, because community colleges tend to have much lower graduation rates than four-year colleges.

“It’s a data issue we face here in Washington — we’re all getting lumped into the same category,” Francis said. Because few community college systems in other states offer baccalaureate degrees, it is not an issue elsewhere.

The National Student Clearinghouse study focused on how students take many different pathways to complete their degrees, with 13 percent of 4-year public college students nationally finishing at a different institution. The study shows 59 percent of students at Washington’s public four-year colleges graduate in six years.

But Francis said Washington’s Statewide Public Four-Year Dashboard, which looks only at the state’s six four-year public universities, shows a six-year graduation rate of 68 percent.

The National Student Clearinghouse report did show one data point that’s not in dispute, and is clearly a strength for the state: Washington’s private non-profit colleges graduated 82 percent of students in six years — one of the highest rates in the country. The national average was 72 percent.

Comments | More in News | Topics: college, graduation rates, higher ed

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