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USF supports new method of counting grad rate

Two weeks after the USF System’s branch campuses faced critical questioning from the Florida Board of Governors over lower performance metrics than the Tampa campus, USF has expressed its support for a new method of counting graduation rates that could result in up to a 22 percent increase in graduation rates at the St. Petersburg campus.

The Student Achievement Measure , a project of six higher education organizations including the Association of American Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities , proposes to break from the traditional method of calculating graduation and retention rates set by the U.S. Department of Education, which only counts full-time students who start and finish their degree at the same institution.

A student who starts his or her degree at the St. Pete branch campus, for example, but later transfers to the Tampa campus to complete the degree, could not be counted in either St. Pete or Tampa campus graduation rates based on the existing system. The SAM would allow the institution at which a student started to continue to track the student’s four-, five- and six-year progression.

“In essence, what many others have been arguing for some time is (the original method is) an antiquated, or archaic, view of looking at student progression and completion rates in American higher education today,” USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said. “… At the end of the day, what ought to be important is how many students who enter higher education in the United States graduate with a degree … not necessarily whether they’ve stayed at one institution.”

Students today, Wilcox said, are increasingly mobile, and the result is universities “grossly underreporting” the actual graduation rates of students.

According to Wilcox, while the St. Petersburg campus would see the biggest jump in metrics based on the new method of calculation — its current six-year graduation rate is 32 percent; under SAM it would jump to 54 percent, pushing it above Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University’s graduation rates — most other state universities, including the USF Tampa campus which has a 56 percent rate, would see around a 5 percent increase in six-year graduation rates.

Florida Atlantic University would see an increase of about 7 percent, up from 40 percent, and the University of Florida would see the least impact, with about a 2 percent increase, Wilcox said.

So far, USF, FIU and the University of Central Florida are the only Florida universities to express support for the new measure, but Wilcox said the university is working to make its voice heard at the state level, as funding is increasingly being tied to performance-based metrics, including graduation rates.

“We’re making it very clear that it’s frankly in the best interest of the Board of Governors as they seek to accomplish their goals, which are pretty ambitious in terms of the number of degrees awarded, to accurately count those degrees and accurately represent the progression and completion,” he said.

Data from each participating institution will be public by Fall 2013, according to the SAM website.

Wilcox said the university will continue to work on its programs designed to improve graduation rates and will continue to collect data based on the traditional method, but thinks the new method will provide the university with data that is more reflective of a changing student demographic.