Great news for those who have been worrying about the college completion crisis – we are focusing on the wrong measures of success. At least that's what Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University and representative for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, seems to think. If you listen to Fitzsimmons' testimony at last week’s House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on college data, you might be surprised to learn that students don’t drop out because they lack financial or academic support from their colleges or universities. They drop out because they have opportunities that are better than college. Opportunities like becoming members of Congress or joining the national touring company of Beauty and the Beast.
When committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R—N.C.) asked expert witnesses which data were the most critical to collect, Mark Schneider from the American Institutes of Research, Jose Cruz from the Education Trust, and James Hallmark from Texas A&M all listed completion and related success measures first, especially for underrepresented and at-risk student populations. Fitzsimmons strongly disagreed:
Please, I urge you to not focus on graduation rates…There are a number of members on this committee that did not graduate from college and clearly they have been highly successful.
In addition to missing the millions of students who drop out of college to become members of Congress, focusing on completion and other narrow measures would also miss other anecdotal stories of success Fitzsimmons offered like this:
For a student who is entering a music theater career, the return on investment might be that she doesn’t graduate because after sophomore year she got an opportunity to perform in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast.
Despite her efforts to portray the focus on college completion as one that fails to recognize the successes of college dropouts, it was clear that Fitzsimmons was worried that institutions would be required to provide transparency around basic measures of student success. She used another anecdote to illustrate her concern, this one about a recently-admitted homeless student:
I hope you’ll be aware that you could be inadvertently creating a situation in which it would push colleges and universities not to take a bet on high risk students, on low-income students… If you’d force me to be compared all the time against other college and universities only focused on graduation rates, retention rates, I might not have been able to accept him.
This is a disappointing and concerning confession. And a baseless scare tactic that claims the act of focusing on student success will prevent student success – particularly for those most in need. We have to stop pretending that demographics are destiny and that institutions don’t matter. Institutions can and do make a huge difference in whether or not students succeed. Similarly-situated schools with similar student bodies can have very different results. But it requires intentionality. And intentionality requires data.
In the end, no one made a more eloquent case for the need for better completion data than Fitzsimmons herself. Higher education data can and should tell a story, but we can’t substitute stories for data. While schools will no doubt tout the accomplishments of their distinguished alumni, shouldn’t students applying to Shenandoah also know if they are as likely to graduate from Shenandoah as similarly-situated students at comparable schools? And if the data show that the majority of Shenandoah dropouts will end up as distinguished members of Congress or national touring company members of Cabaret, shouldn’t students (and institutions) know that, too?