Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Variations In Performance Across Universities

Different universities can be ranked and sorted according to various performance data. One such index is the graduation rate. I believe these were compiled originally for NCAA member schools to compare rates between athletes and the rest of the campus population. So for that reason, 6-year rates have been the standard. (After they've used up their eligibility, intercollegiate athletes who do graduate make better progress toward their degree. While competing at the intercollegiate level, it is harder to keep a full complement of credit hours and take demanding courses.) Here are some data for 6-year results at major public universities, for students who started college in 2001. If you scroll down at the link you will find data from an earlier cohort, students who started in 1998. For the earlier cohort there are also 5-year and 4-year rates as well as "complete" graduation rates.

There is substantial variation in the graduation rate index across universities. The U of I ranks 8th on this list with not quite an 82% rate. For other Big Ten schools, Michigan is tops (Northwestern is better on this metric than Michigan, but since it is private NU is not on this list.) Penn State is slightly better than us. (We used to be in a dead heat with Penn State.) Ohio State and Purdue are about 10 percentage points lower. Iowa and Minnesota about 15 percentage points lower. University of Arizona is much lower still, the last on this table. So although the Declining by Degrees documentary depicted types who could get through with minimal effort at Arizona, do note that many students wash out.

One wonders what explains this variation. Tautologically, it has to be the students and the schools. Less tautological, one can ask how much of the variation is explained by student characteristics only. So, for example, one might like to look at ACT performance and relate that to Graduation Rate. Many schools quote ACT scores at the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile to give a range of student ACT performance, such as in the table here. Note that U of I has slightly higher scores in this mid range than does UNC-Chapel Hill or UCSD, but has slightly lower graduation rates than those schools. One possible explanation for this is that ACT scores do predict graduation rate reasonably well, our distribution is more spread out than those other schools so while we have a greater fraction getting a score of 26 or higher, we may also have a greater fraction getting a score of 24 or lower. (I don't known this to be the case. I'm simply offering up a possible explanation of the results.) Alternatively the explanation would have to lie with other factors - such as student/faculty ratio, percentage of first generation students, rigor of the curriculum, etc.

There is a similar table listing additional schools, but University of Arizona is not included in that table. So I looked elsewhere and found a table that lists the top 500 universities ranking ACT scores at the 75th percentile only. The U of I is ranked in the top 100; it's 75th percentile score is 31. Arizona is ranked in the bottom 100; it's 75th percentile score is 26. That is a substantial difference.

Noting these differences, there is then the obvious question of how much of the Disengagement Pact can be explained by these factors alone. I don't know the answer to that, nor how it would be measured. But one might reasonably conjecture that the problem is less severe at the U of I than it is at Arizona.

When Linda Katehi was still Provost she visited with the College of Business top administration and in that meaning said she wanted to move our campus graduation rate to 90%. She didn't mean to accomplish this via even higher admissions standards (which is something that we can only indirectly control at best). She meant by doing better by the students who are at risk of dropping out.

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