Should Colleges Tell Applicants About Their Low Graduation Rates?

 

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International  

This week at EPI’s International Conference on Student Success (Retention 2011), I attended a session by Tom Mortenson, Senior Scholar at The Pell Institute and editor of Postsecondary Opportunity. Tom looked at the issue of predicted versus actual persistence and graduation rates at US four-year colleges and universities. Interesting stuff.

The data launched us into a dialogue about what responsibility college officials—including administrators, professors, counselors, and advisors—have to tell students where they stand with regard to prospective graduation and college success. Every institution houses the data and technology to run every prospective student through a real-time regression analysis to provide a predictive rate of success. That is, we can come up with the odds of a particular student’s chance of graduation from any institution.

If we can do this, the question is what do we do with that information? On one hand, we can surely use it to determine whether we admit or reject that student. We do that now. But for most of the institutions that are either open admission or have liberal admissions policies, these data have other potential services. In this case, if we know that Student A has a 36 percent chance of success at our institution, then what do we do with that data? The participants in Tom’s session were dialoging about whether we tell the student what we already know: that they are at risk.

One participant was adamant that it would be morally apprehensible to tell students that their odds of success are low. It would, in her words, crush their motivation and thus put them at even greater risk of failure.

I disagreed. In fact, for years I have counseled just the opposite. At our Retention 101 workshops, I advise participants that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to advise students exactly where they stand, what they need to do to succeed, and how we are able to support them.

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