College Completion Rates vs. College Attainment Rates

Regular readers will know I geek out about this stuff — the way different metrics within an industry can give radically different pictures of what is going on.  And so, with the recent focus on completion and attainment rates, it’s helpful to note that one does not imply the other. Here’s Arthur Hauptman on the subject:

In some other important ways, though, the attainment and completion debate in this country has taken some wrong turns over the past five years. One such misdirection is the assumption that higher completion rates automatically result in higher attainment rates. To understand the problem here, we need to recognize that completion and attainment rates do not measure the same thing. Completion rates are the percentage of students who finish the program they began, while attainment rates measure the share of the adult population who hold a degree.

Traditionally the United States has had high rates of bachelor’s-degree attainment compared to some other countries. But this ranking was not achieved by having high completion rates. Indeed, for a long time we have had comparatively mediocre completion rates because we expend more effort to increase access than many other countries that have more elitist systems of higher education. So the traditional U.S. leadership in bachelor’s-degree attainment has been a function of enrolling lots of students who, even with modest completion rates, produce very high rates of bachelor’s-degree attainment. The stimulus for the national debate we are having is that we now rank much lower on all measures of educational attainment.

This matters, quite a lot (emphasis mine):

But it is a mistake to assume that modest completion rates are the reason for our lower standing when it comes to attainment. Rather, the philosophy and the policies of countries, states, and systems of institutions are the primary determinant of completion rates. For example, a country with an elitist higher-education system that allows only 10 or 15 percent of its population to enroll in college is likely to have a much higher completion rate than a country that allows a much broader share of its population to enroll.

Similarly, it is also a mistake to use institutional completion rates as a measure of educational quality, because institutional selectivity is by far the principal predictor of completion rates. An open-access institution that graduates 50 percent of its students is most likely doing a much better job of educating its students than a highly selective institution that graduates only 60 percent of the students who enroll. So in assessing the record of institutions with regard to their quality, they ought to be compared with peer institutions with similar degrees of selectivity.

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