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What's a reasonable, realistic graduation rate?

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the GRAD Act in Louisiana. Its goal is to increase graduation rates in state universities, and that has had me thinking about what might be a good goal to set for graduation rates in regional public universities like mine.

There will always be students who simply decide that college is not their thing, regardless of the particular institution, and students who relocate for reasons having nothing to do with any failure of the institution. Also, as Sara pointed out last night, there are always students who have life issues that put them outside the six-year graduation timetable. In other words, they finish, but they might have to take semesters off, and it might take them seven and a half years.

The goal this legislation sets for my university is 60%. This source, which may be false and/or outdated, puts our transfer rate at 40%. Even if this number is somewhat exaggerated, that's a pretty big chunk of the student population. I wonder how transfer students are counted in the graduation rate. I don't want to be put into a "graduate everyone that's left" situation. I guess what I'm saying is that I see a few categories of students in the "aren't graduating" cohort:

  • Those who simply decide that they don't like college, period (nothing personal!)
  • Those who take longer than six years due to life issues
  • Those who transfer elsewhere (if those students are counted in the graduation rates)
  • Those who are so underprepared that they don't manage to meet the requirements and outcomes despite the best efforts of academic support services -- or who just need more than six years to reach them (have to repeat some courses, for example)
  • Those who are well prepared but not mature or focused, so they crash and burn, but they might return sometime in their late twenties or early thirties
  • And of course, there are those who are pretty well prepared, but they don't manage to make it out in six years due to some actual institutional problems, like required courses that are only offered every two years, etc.
  • And those who are not that well prepared but are motivated, but could have been helped by academic support services that are underfunded, nonexistent, or otherwise inadequate

I wonder if 60% is a realistic goal. It sounds like it -- after all, you're still conceding that 40% won't graduate, and the GRAD Act is only ruling that Louisiana must rise to the rates of other southern states -- but I'm curious to find out the whole story about the compilation of graduation rates. I know dual enrollment students are not counted; they could take a year's worth of credit in high school, but the graduation clock starts only when they get OUT of high school and set foot on our campus. Gaming the system...

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