This year the U.S. Department of Education (D.O.E.) began to post universities’ graduation rates as part of its goal of providing a transparent look at universities. This graduation rate counts only “freshmen cohorts,” i.e., students who begin as full-time freshmen, never transfer and graduate within six years.
Harris-Stowe State University’s graduation rate is at eight percent when only “cohort data” are calculated. While this is an accurate figure, it is an incomplete measure. Degree production, or the total number of all individuals who eventually graduate from the institution, should be part of the equation.
Take the college experience of Jason Chapel. Jason graduated as the valedictorian of Sumner High School class of 2007. He initially earned an academic scholarship to Jackson State University. Personal reasons brought him back to St. Louis and he transferred to Harris-Stowe, graduating within six years.
Under current D.O.E. guidelines, only Jackson State University could have counted Jason since Jackson State is where he began as a full-time freshman. Because he transferred and graduated from Harris-Stowe, he cannot be included in either school’s graduation rate. Jason’s journey of starting at one university and transferring is not uncommon. Approximately one-third of all college students in the U.S. transfer at least once prior to graduating, and seven million are attending part-time.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this graduation rate calculation persists even though fewer than half of enrolled college students in the U.S. meet the traditional profile of first-time, full-time freshmen who never transfer. The rest of these students are simply not counted – up to 50 percent of enrolled students – though they may have graduated.
Of the 162 graduates in the May 2013 class at Harris-Stowe, only 53 could be counted as students who began their studies here. The rest were not counted in the institution’s graduation rates. And who were these graduates?
Consider David Marango, who received second-place honors in the Mathematics and Statistics Division at the 2012 National Science Foundation’s Emerging Researchers Conference. Or Alicia Bamber, who was selected by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to participate in its prestigious and highly competitive undergraduate internship program. Or Durwood Wooldridge, who spent a decade suffering through depression and homelessness but stopped his spiral and graduated with honors.
Collectively, they are part of that larger group of graduates who are not counted in Harris-Stowe’s graduation rates.
There are students who do begin at Harris-Stowe, never transfer and complete their degrees within the six-year graduation threshold. Idris Aziz graduated in four years and now is in graduate school at Alabama A&M University. Temisha Blanchard graduated with honors in four years. Harris-Stowe does indeed graduate students in four years, but Harris-Stowe’s successful efforts in graduating diverse student populations are going unnoticed. Since 2001, 1,762 individuals graduated from Harris-Stowe, but only 456 could be counted, rendering 1,206 graduates invisible to the D.O.E.
The good news is that the D.O.E. will soon change its calculation to include part-time and transfer students. The many graduates whom Harris-Stowe produces will eventually be counted.
Harris-Stowe is the smallest public higher education institution in the state, but remains competitive in its degree production of African Americans. According to the Missouri Department of Higher Education, in 2012 Harris-Stowe ranked fourth out of 13 Missouri public institutions in the number of African-American graduates in 2012. Overall, Harris-Stowe ranksseventh out of 37 Missouri public and private four-year institutions in the graduation of African Americans.
Harris-Stowe is challenged to increase its full-time freshman cohort graduation rates and is firmly committed to matriculating this group of students. Harris-Stowe continues to play a critical role in Missouri in the graduation of diverse learners seeking a college degree. Certainly, this should not be lost in the discussion of graduation rates and degree production.
Dwyane Smith is vice president of academic affairs/chief academic officer at Harris-Stowe State University and serves on the Missouri Department of Higher Education Council of Chief Academic Officers.