College graduation rate overlooks success stories

NEW BRITAIN – Damek Spacek, summa cum laude, Class of 2010, is the kind of graduate who makes Central Connecticut State University proud. Trouble is, in one important measure of Central’s success he doesn’t count.

Like hundreds of other students who received degrees over the weekend, Spacek, a biomolecular science major, will not show up in the university’s official report of graduation rates.

According to the most recent reports filed with state and federal agencies, 49 percent of the university’s entering freshmen class graduated from Central after six years and just 14 percent after four years.

But those numbers, a standard statistic reported to the U.S. government by colleges and universities across America, are misleading, often creating an overly gloomy picture of student success, university officials say.

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Damek Spacek at work in a lab at Central Connecticut State University (Robert A. Frahm)

The formula does not include students who enter as part-time students, who take more than six years to earn degrees, or who transfer from two-year or other four-year colleges.

“That’s the federal rule, and it’s stupid,” says Clifford Adelman, a longtime U.S. Department of Education researcher now with the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

Adelman’s 2006 report, “The Toolbox Revisited,” is a leading study of the shifting patterns of college attendance, including more frequent transfers among colleges, part-time enrollments, enrollment in summer classes, and accumulation of credits from multiple institutions.

“With all this change, we still measure something called ‘college graduation rates’ with anachronistic formulas that do not track students through increasingly complex paths to degrees,” Adelman wrote. “As a result, we do not understand what is really going on.”

At Central, more than 40 percent of this year’s graduates transferred from other schools. Spacek, for example, spent his freshman year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out because “I didn’t take it seriously enough,” he said.

After working as a security guard, he enrolled at Central, where he compiled a 3.94 grade point average, earned scholarships, and conducted DNA research that was published in academic journals.

“A lot of my classmates have either been to Central before, took some time off to work or have been to other schools,” said Spacek, 22, who commuted to Central from his home in Berlin. “It’s not a place you just come and graduate in four years.”

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John Miller, Central’s president, said, “In reality, there are all kinds of different paths” to degrees. Unlike highly selective colleges, Central attracts students who are more likely to work part-time, to be older than traditional college students, or to be the first in their families to attend college. Some are married and raising families.

Spacek was among about 2,400 students who received degrees from Central Saturday, but because he started at George Washington, his degree is not reflected in the graduation rate.

“He didn’t count for George Washington, and he didn’t count for us,” said Miller, who recently presented the school’s prestigious Barnard Awards to Spacek and three other graduates. Of the four, three were transfer students.

A closer look at the numbers reveals a more encouraging picture.

According to figures compiled last year, among full-time students who started at Central six years earlier, 49 percent received degrees from Central, about 10 percent received degrees at other institutions, and another 15 percent were still enrolled at Central or elsewhere – bringing the total of those with degrees or still in college to 74 percent.

Similarly, of those who transferred to Central as full-time students, 76 percent had earned degrees or were still enrolled in college.

Many schools, including Central, are working to keep more students in school. President Obama has made higher education a priority, setting a goal to make the United States the world’s leader by 2020 in the percentage of adults with college degrees.

Central is not likely to see graduation rates as high as those at more selective liberal arts colleges. Nevertheless, it has started programs to keep more students on a path toward graduation.

That includes an academic early warning system designed to identify students who are skipping classes, failing tests or not finishing assignments. University researchers found that students finishing first semester with less than a 2.0 grade point average “had about a 10 percent chance of graduating,” Provost Carl Lovitt said.

Central’s official graduation rate has inched upward over the past six or seven years, improving by about 10 percentage points, Lovitt said.

That has occurred even without counting students such as Spacek.

The official numbers hardly matter to Spacek. From Central, he moves on to Stanford University, where he has been accepted into a graduate program in genetics leading to a Ph.D.