Success Metrics on Upward Trend

How does one measure the success of a college? Our goal at Dalton State is to graduate educated young men and women armed with knowledge, skills, and experiences that will allow them to join the workforce and become contributing members of society. But how do we know if we’ve succeeded in our mission? What measurements do we use to determine that what we do here is making a difference in individual lives and in the life of our community?

We have an entire department (albeit a tiny one) devoted to measuring institutional effectiveness. Dr. Henry Codjoe, aided by student workers, collects and analyzes data that tell us how well we are doing –or not doing—at producing successful graduates ready to take on the world. This data shapes our decision-making and drives our thinking as we plan the future of Dalton State College.

But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Context is needed to provide a meaningful framework for evaluating those numbers. How is something measured? Is it trending up or down or remaining flat? Are there external forces that come to bear on whatever it is that is being measured?

Consider, for instance, graduation rates. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System is the national clearinghouse for colleges and universities. All of us who receive federal funds supply IPEDS with a variety of data each year on enrollment, costs, staffing, and “success” metrics such as retention and graduation rates.

But how does IPEDS measure graduation rates? Let’s look at bachelor’s degree students. In order to make what it considers to be apples-to-apples comparisons, IPEDS looks at cohorts of first time, full time students who start together one year and then measures how many of those same students have graduated from that same school six years later. We are required to report numbers according to this formula even though we do not believe it even begins to tell the complete story of Dalton State graduates.

This methodology, for instance, does not take into account any student who transfers from one college to another. By this measure, neither of our two most recent U.S. presidents is a college graduate. Barack Obama began his college education at Occidental College, then transferred to and graduated from Columbia University. Donald Trump started out at Fordham University, but graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Neither graduated within six years with the cohort they started out with, so by the IPEDS measure, neither is a college graduate. Are you a college graduate? Some of my friends are surprised to find out that in the eyes of IPEDS they are not.

Just last month we proudly awarded bachelor’s degrees to 19 student athletes, but roughly half had transferred to Dalton State (that’s often the nature of collegiate athletes) and thus will not be counted by IPEDS as Dalton State graduates. Nor will they be counted by the institutions where they started out, because they did not remain part of their original six-year cohort.

Consider also the type of students that we serve. When many of us went to college, nothing more was expected of us than that we study hard, make good grades, and earn a degree within four years. I daresay that for the majority of students at private colleges and our research and state universities, the expectation is that their full-time job is being a student and graduating in four to five years.

Frankly, that is a luxury. Consider the students of the state college sector institutions such as Dalton State. Many of our students have the additional responsibilities of work and perhaps children or other family members competing with classes for their time and energy. Many of them struggle financially to stay in school, and even a car repair bill of a few hundred dollars can derail their college graduation dreams. I am proud to report that of the institutions in the state college sector of the University System of Georgia, Dalton State has the highest graduation rate of bachelor’s degree-seeking students.

So how do we measure our success when it comes to graduating students with Dalton State bachelor’s degrees? We look at things like how we compare to our peers. We also look at trends. It is gratifying to note that our graduation rate –even using the narrow IPEDS definition of graduation rate—is climbing steadily. We’ve made tremendous progress over the last 10 years.

We also look at our sheer number of graduates and that trend over the past several years. Our last two spring commencement ceremonies have been the largest ever at Dalton State. Last month we awarded 461 degrees and certificates; of those graduates, 261 (57 percent) earned bachelor’s degrees. In addition, we awarded 187 associate degrees (24 to area dual-enrolled high school students!) and 13 certificates. The reality is that we are now looking at holding two May graduation ceremonies (in addition to our December commencement) as we have exceeded the capacity of the Dalton Convention Center. As a college president, I can assure you that “too many graduates” is a great problem to have!

We still have too many students who do not leave with a degree in hand – but when we look at factors like our number of graduates (rising), number of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree as opposed to associate degree or certificate (rising), number of bachelor’s degree offerings (rising), retention rate (rising), number of full time students (rising), average age of student (trending younger) – we think we are definitely headed in the right direction. I am happy to speak with anyone about our metrics and to try to put them into meaningful context. It’s a good story and getting better.