What's love got to do with it?

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The Education Trust recently released a report entitled "Tough Love: Bottom-Line Quality Standards for Colleges." The report has three main points:

  1. Billions of dollars in federal student aid and tax benefits are given to institutions of higher education with very little consideration of their performance, especially in the areas of improving low socioeconomic status student outcomes, overall degree attainment, and post-graduation employment or further education.
  2. Nearly 600,000 students attend colleges and universities that fall below the minimum standards of institutional success — as defined by graduation and dropout rates. The Education Trust labels roughly 300 of these colleges as "engines of inequality, dropout factories or diploma mills."
  3. Having made these criticisms, the Education Trust recommends "targeted assistance to persistently underperforming colleges and university." And more pointedly, it recommends "cutting off federal aid" to those institutions that do not improve within a designated period of time.

Michael Dannenberg and Mary Nguyen Barry, the report's authors, use data from the Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) to discuss the relative low performance of many of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, knowing that using IPEDS has been heavily critiqued by scholars doing research in the Minority Serving Institution arena. The authors attempt to justify the usage, eventually noting "the current IPEDS graduation rate metric is adequate to use — at least until we have more comprehensive data." Let us first state that we believe that all colleges and universities with lagging graduate rates need to improve. However, using IPEDS graduation data as a way to identify institutions that should be penalized for their low performance is troubling.

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Using graduation rates as a measure of institutional success neglects both institutional characteristics and student characteristics. Yes, the Education Trust takes into account Pell Grant eligibility of students, but it also falls back on the same measures that heavily penalize the majority of Minority Serving Institutions for taking significant risks in enrolling more disadvantaged students. What if the Education Trust employed the alternative measures of success put forth by Excelencia in Education in its new report "Latino College Completion in the United States"? Authors Deborah Santiago and Emily Galdeano Calderón suggest two supplementary measures: one, measurement of graduation rate by 100 full-time equivalent students, which takes into account part-time students and reduces the difference in completion rates by Latinos and whites; and two, measurement of completion rates relative to the population in need, which takes into account completion differences of racial and ethnic minorities. To only use IPEDS is misguided because it doesn't take into account the diverse ways in which U.S. colleges and universities and their student populations can be measured.

Given that Minority Serving Institutions make up 25 percent of the 70 colleges and universities with the lowest graduate rates in the nation (below 15 percent), it is important to look closely at these institutions. Rather than merely critiquing them, we need to look at MSIs' institutional resources, student characteristics, funding sources, their history of underfunding, and being on the receiving end of discrimination in comparison to the peer institutions that we benchmark them against. Descriptive statistics of graduation rates alone will never tell us the full story of these institutions' efforts to educate those who have already received the least support throughout their educational trajectories.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Samayoa and Nguyen are Ph.D. candidates and research assistants at the Center.