Today in collegiate dystopia: when the metric is mistaken for the goal

February 10, 2022 • 9:30 am


[This is a long post. Although focused on Wisconsin and my campus of the University of Wisconsin in particular, I think the issues are general ones in higher education. Here’s the TLDR: Higher education administrators, responding to the demands placed upon them by government and industry, have fixated on a flawed measure of educational success–the six-year graduation rate. They will use any means necessary to increase that metric. In doing so they have mistaken cause and effect, and are devaluing the credentials which they seek so ardently to award.]

The neoliberal consensus in higher education, endorsed in America by Democrats and Republicans alike, holds that higher education is, in its essence, a monetary transaction involving students and the university. The two parties differ only over a question that has become a perennial debate in higher education circles: are students the customers of higher education, or are they the product? Democrats contend that students are customers buying job training, and that the purpose of higher education is to get the populace good jobs; Republicans view students as products to be ordered and purchased by industry, so that the role of higher education is to discern the needs of industry and to train workers to fulfill these needs.

University administrators have embraced the consensus with enthusiasm, and have striven to remold their institutions so as to further its aims. Whether their keenness arises from conviction or an instinct for self-preservation is debatable, but the effects are indisputable.

However, in seeking to please their financial masters, university administrators have fallen into a familiar trap: they have mistaken a metric for the goal.

The metric they are in thrall to is the six-year graduation rate. This metric is used by both government and private agencies as the single best measure by which to evaluate an institution of higher education. Administrators thus have their eyes set firmly on raising their institution’s six-year graduation rate, and anything that would interfere with that–say, graduation requirements— are barriers to “student success” that must be overcome.

A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse on six-year graduation rates for the incoming class of 2014 has found that Wisconsin is doing well by this measure. (That this group is a card-carrying member of the neoliberal consensus is announced on their homepage: they “Serve the K-20 to Workforce Continuum”.)  [Click on all screenshots to access the links.]My campus, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, however, had the lowest six-year graduation rate of any campus in the University of Wisconsin system.Asked for comment on this, the administration said that graduation rates had improved a lot (they had), that raising them further was the university’s top priority (seems as if it is), and that student “demographics” explained it (I don’t know about that).

What’s the matter with six-year graduation rates? Traditionally, in the jargon of higher education, graduation rate is regarded as an “input measure”, rather than an “output measure”; that is, it measures the selectivity of the admissions process, and not the “value added” by the education within the institution. To use an analogy, if you bring your Ferrari to a car wash, it’s going to come out looking pretty good, no matter how indifferent the quality of the wash.

There are other problems with the six-year graduation rate–as usually defined, it misses incoming transfer students who successfully graduate, and students who transfer out and finish elsewhere– but these bugs could be remedied without addressing the fundamental drawback.

What leads to high six-year graduation rates? High graduation rates are characteristic of schools such as the Ivies, state flagship schools, and the service academies. You thus might be tempted to believe that since “good” schools have high graduation rates, then raising the graduation rate will make a school better. But that’s mistaking a correlation for a cause. High graduation rates are the result of 1. selective admissions, and 2. large input of resources. But public branch campuses (like mine) and most private colleges cannot be very selective in their admissions, nor can they command the necessary resources.

Why does UW-Parkside have the lowest six-year graduation rate in the UW System? I don’t know why it’s that way now (i.e., for the entering class of 2014). But I do have a strong idea about why it had the lowest graduation rate for the entering class of 2006, because eight years ago there was another kerfluffle about the campus’s low graduation rate. At that time, a local reporter asked me about why that was the case, and I was able to gather some data on graduation rates across the 13 UW System campuses, and show that the major reason was lack of academic preparation of incoming students, as measured by ACT scores. (The ACT, unlike the SAT, attempts to measure achievement rather than aptitude.)

This figure tells the story.

Across the 13 campuses, the average ACT score of the incoming class is a strong predictor of class graduation rate. (For the statistically adept, R² is 78%.) Parkside’s graduation rate is pretty much exactly what you would expect given the ACT scores of its incoming freshmen. The flagship campus (Madison) and Parkside have the highest and lowest graduation rates and ACT scores, respectively, but both fall within the expected relationship. (The only significant departure from the relationship is UW-Superior’s lower than expected graduation rate.) It was Parkside’s mission of providing access to the less well prepared that led to lower graduation rates.

The “demographic” explanation of Parkside’s low graduation rate invokes, among other factors, the presence of a high proportion of what are termed “under-represented minorities”. Parkside did, and does, have the highest proportion of such students in the UW System, but including this variable did not significantly improve the relationship between ACT score and graduation rate.

How can six-year graduation rates be raised? Parkside could perhaps raise its graduation rate by admitting freshmen with higher ACT scores. So why don’t we do this? Because part of our mission is to provide access and opportunity to students who are not as well prepared, due to a variety of educational, social, familial, and personal factors. Some of these students succeed splendidly, and we don’t want to deny them the opportunity to become successful. The City University of New York (and its institutional precursors) provided the opportunity for advancement for the largely immigrant communities of New York City through much of the 20th century, producing some of the great scientists, scholars, artists, and authors of that century. I don’t claim we are incubating a cultural renaissance here, but we hope we are helping another generation and population of students to succeed as individuals and contribute to society.

The flip side of success is failure. You can’t give opportunity to almost everyone, and not have some not make it. You could probably raise the graduation rate some with a massive influx of resources directed toward the least prepared students, but that’s not going to happen. So if you want to maintain opportunity, but also have everyone graduate, you need to redefine what it takes to graduate.

At a meeting on campus a few years ago, I learned that few incoming students needed remedial math classes anymore; formerly a considerable fraction had needed them. Impressed, I asked what accounted for the substantial improvement in mathematics preparation of our incoming students. I was distressed to learn that there was no improvement; “remedial” had been redefined downward. As Freddie deBoer drily wrote about increases in high school graduation rates, “There is no underlying trend in educational data that would suggest that this vast improvement is underwritten by actual student learning gains.”

So what’s the problem? By treating graduation rate as the goal, higher education administrators, government, and industry are mistaking the metric for the goal. The metric can be gamed. Thus, anything that impedes “student success” is a barrier that must be eliminated. They embrace the neoliberal consensus, but eventually their “products” will not be valued by industry. Again as Freddie deBoer put it, “Sooner or Later, Ability Rules“.

Higher education administrators are a fairly nomad class– they move on to other positions at other institutions, and thus do not always reap what they have sown. For government and industry, the attachment to the graduation metric is shortsighted– they are actually driving down the meaning of the degrees and credentials they demand that higher education give out.

What is to be done? Even within the neoliberal ideology there are contradictions that must be resolved. The goal of acquiring skills, whether for the benefit of the student or some eventual employer, is multidimensional, and probably cannot be encapsulated in a few metrics, let alone one. Higher education administrators must learn learn how to investigate causal relations among complex social phenomena, thus being able to distinguish causes, effects, and correlates. (It can be difficult!) Just as high graduation rates are an effect, in part, of selecting already successful students, it is almost certainly the case that good, successful, students take 15 or more credits a semester, and not, as a popular campaign in higher education insists, that taking 15 credits a semester will make a student good and successful. (One manifestation of this campaign– signs sternly warning students that “Time is money”– reminds me, in both a sad and funny way, of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s 1988 classic, “They Live“.) Students are not successful because they graduate; they graduate because they are successful.

I think we need to get rid of the neoliberal consensus. My own view is that the object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is to produce responsible citizens, and that the role of institutions of higher education specifically is the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

At the very time I was contacted eight years ago by the local reporter concerning the 2006 entering class graduation rates, I happened to be working with an excellent  student who was graduating that year– one of my top students, with sterling grades, a phenomenal hard worker, all while raising a child alone. Due to varied and (for our concerns here) unimportant circumstances, at one point in her academic career she moved elsewhere, took a few courses at another school there, and then came back; it took her seven years to complete her degree. By the popular neoliberal metrics of retention and graduation within six years at the same school, she was a double failure. But the reality is almost infinitely far from this: she is, in fact, an outstanding success, and a fine exemplar of my university doing its very best.

Higher education in general, and UW-Parkside in particular, should not– must not– give up on that part of its mission which provides access and opportunity to the less well prepared. But unless our understanding of that mission moves beyond the terms set out by the neoliberal consensus, we are condemned to contradiction, and failure to achieve the goals of that mission.

21 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: when the metric is mistaken for the goal

  1. It’s an old bureaucratic problem, exemplified in the Soviet Russian command economy. The production target is 1000 feet of pipe? Fine, it doesn’t say what diameter the pipe must be, or how thick. It doesn’t even say what the individual lengths of pipe must be, so 1000 one-foot pipes is just as good as 100 ten-foot pipes. Without feedback from consumers in the form of buying or not buying the output, there is no incentive to do anything but meet the central planning target. In the case of education, the consumers are both the students (or their parents) and the state government (for public schools). They need to push-back harder on the quality of education.

    1. My takeaway is: Change the metric. Or weight it based on ACT score.

      Also note: If the UW system had done away with ACT testing, this relationship would not be readily discernable.

  2. I had to laugh at this:

    “Democrats contend that students are customers buying job training, and that the purpose of higher education is to get the populace good jobs; Republicans view students as products to be ordered and purchased by industry, so that the role of higher education is to discern the needs of industry and to train workers to fulfill these needs.”

    Neither are correct. Both leave out any liberal arts education and the traditional classics. I also disagree that an education is a monetary transaction.

    As far as the 6 year graduation rate; I know one university that has a 5 year undergrad program with co-op. I would bet their 6 year graduation rate is pretty bad. Also this discounts the people who have to work full/part time to afford an education and may need to take semesters off.

    1. Agreed. At my Parkside-like university, most programs are 5-year co-op programs, and many students graduate in 6+ years. The tuition is not too expensive, but the opportunity costs of spending 6 years getting a degree are large, and the students are aware of those opportunity costs. So for better or worse those students do largely see this as transactional (dollars and time spent to earn skills and a credential for a good job). Especially so among the many students from other countries who pay much higher tuition than our Canadian students, and want skills and job prospects in return. The university is financially dependent on those international tuition fees, and some programs are designed in part to keep those international fees coming in.

      OTOH, when one gets those students focused on some fun or interesting biology (like that wasp freak show posted earlier this morning), those other concerns seem to melt away, and the students become just people having a great time learning with each other and their instructors. In the moment, it’s the liberal arts ideal.

    2. Higher education is undeniably a monetary transaction. The student gives the University some money and the University provides an education (not job training) to the student. How is that not a monetary transaction?

      There are problems with both the Democrat and Republican views as represented by Greg. The Democrat view is wrong because a University education is not job training. The Republican view is wrong because it’s not corporations who pay for the students’ education. They buy the students, not off the University, but off the students themselves.

      The “right” answer is that the Universities’ product is the courses that impart education to students and the students are the customers. The universities are a service industry. Claiming that the people they serve are the product is ridiculous.

    3. Well said! Recently one of my daughter’s friends asked me why we bombed the Japanese at Pearl Harbor (High Schooler)? Much to be said for a good basic education. Had flashbacks Belushi in Animal House!!

  3. “My own view is that the object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is to produce responsible citizens, and that the role of institutions of higher education specifically is the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”


    With tongue in cheek and with nothing to add, university administrators who want to remain with that metric exclusively should simply stop admitting any students. Within a few years, the number becomes 0/0 permanently. Since it is well known that 0/0 can be any number you like (including unreal numbers, like the square root of -1, and + or – infinity, they can write down whatever they like without (continuing?) lying.

    1. It reminds me a bit of someone who once proposed opening a “Princeton University Law School” and charging exorbitant application fees, then rejecting everyone…since there is no such law school, but people probably think there is one. The rate of rejection would make the school seem extremely selective, and more people would want to apply.

  4. Parkside could perhaps raise its graduation rate by admitting freshmen with higher ACT scores. So why don’t we do this? Because part of our mission is to provide access and opportunity to students who are not as well prepared, due to a variety of educational, social, familial, and personal factors.

    It’s a good mission. I agree with that mission – public state schools should strive to help educate the state’s public.

    I suspect system leadership understands the ‘mistake the metric for the goal’ problem all too well. The issue is that they can’t do what they know they need to do – increase resources to the system.

    I’m reminded of the program management (un)holy triangle – “cost, schedule, performance: the project manager only gets to pick two.” The other is decided for you, based on what you pick. Low cost and fast schedule = crappy performance. High performance and fast schedule = very high cost. Etc.

  5. This very astute essay explains other matters too. The confusion of metrics with goals is why, when a given metric conflicts with a goal, the “progressive” educrats imagine that eliminating the metric will solve the problem. Hence the campaign against the SAT and other tests of aptitude or accomplishment. As some of us often point out, the educrat response to global warming is to eliminate thermometers.

  6. A book recommended in academic circles when those that see the oncoming disaster for higher education wring their hands in worry is this one: The Great Upheaval. I have a copy but haven’t read it yet but it talks about how Higher Education (with a US focus) is at a cross roads and many institutions won’t survive this.

  7. Setting arbitrary targets often has unforeseen negative consequences, of course.

    Here, the UK government has just announced that it is considering using graduate employment outcome as a measure of university success (i.e., flipping burgers = bad). This has attracted criticism because in some regions the kind of employment opportunities that would achieve a higher rating are limited and the government’s “levelling up” policies are specifically aimed at avoiding graduates in currently disadvantaged areas from having to move to London or other areas with better job prospects. As former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett (born blind into an impoverished family) noted:

    In fact, government policy is actively undermining universities in the north of England. The Office for Students has been asked to mark down universities if their cohorts do not move into “skilled work” after graduation, something less available in areas outside of the south due to regional inequality. This means northern students attending university nearer home will be tempted to leave their areas for well-paid jobs elsewhere. To help make regeneration a reality, contradictions in government policy must be set aside.

  8. Thanks for leading the charge against graduation rates Greg! Unfortunately, it will likely end up like that of the fabled light brigade. Our university, Cal State Fresno, lauds its graduation rate. Once, at a strategic planning meeting for my college our Dean was asking the group what we should do to increase the graduation rate. I asked if the correct metric should be “learning rates.” Silence ensued until one of faculty colleagues agreed with me. We are no longer part of the strategic planning efforts. The administrators like to brag about graduation rates to the politicians, who hold the purse strings.

    On a related issue, our university has gone from a ratio of 80% tenured / tenure track to 20% adjuncts, to 40% tenured / tenure track to 60% adjuncts in the 32 years I’ve been here. A senior in my upper division personality course spelled “Freud” as “Froid.” But she will graduate in five years. Hooray for graduation rates!

  9. The contrasting model is known as the “Humboldtian edification/attainments ideal” or Humboldtian model of higher education:

    There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life. — Wilhelm von Humboldt, letter to the Prussian King

  10. I think that universities must be more selective and, respectively, have higher graduation rates. Offering disadvantaged young people an opportunity to enroll in a university sounds very fine, but when tuition fees are stratospheric, it seems to me that those who do not graduate end up much worse off than if they had never attended.

    1. But, as Greg says in the OP, there are students who, for a variety of reasons, arrive at university with low scores and some of these succeed splendidly. It is a loss of potential both from the perspective of the student and the perspective of society as a whole if we simply raise the entry requirements and exclude such students.

  11. I once gave a student a C-, who promptly complained to my dept head, who, without even discussing it with me, told me that he would side with the student in filing a grade appeal.

    Administrators focus on the singular goal of getting students graduated as soon as possible. There is, in my experience, little to no concern about the quality of the education that the degree is supposed to represent.

    A strong, rigorous program is likely to have a higher failure rate, but will produce more well educated students. But that’s not good for the school’s bottom line. So we keep lowering the bar.

  12. “So we keep lowering the bar.” Poster #12 has committed a wordcrime here. According to an IT language guide at my university, the phrase “lower the bar” is problematic, as are: “normal”, “guru”, “cakewalk”, “manpower”, “black box”, “crazy”, “grandfather”, and “minority”, and use of the adjective “preferred” in connection with pronouns.

  13. I don’t see the problem. Having a correlation means the metric can be used as a proxy, but you don’t know if it is beneficial or detrimental.

    These types of rate metrics are often used for productivity and to monitor changes in “a production line”. No more no less, it has more to do with practicalities than with ideologies.

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