Empty Conference Room with paper and pencils in front of each seat - symbolizing a board meeting

Going Before the Board

Every college or university has a Board. They go by slightly different names, Board of Trustees, Board of Regents, Board of Governors. We use the generic term “Board” to refer to all these groups. Boards are primarily comprised of people who are NOT experts in higher education. Rather – they have expertise in industries or fields that the institution wants to leverage or apply. New members are typically selected strategically, complementing (not duplicating) the skill sets of existing members. Collectively, the Board is responsible for:

  • guiding the institution to success
  • serving as a critic and approver of changes
  • holding senior leadership accountable – especially the president who reports directly to the Board.

Empty Conference Room with paper and pencils in front of each seat - symbolizing a board meeting


In short, the Board is comprised of people who spend most of their days – and have achieved considerable success – in other industries. One person may have been in higher ed in some way, but usually not more than one.

Part of the Board’s purview is student success. Accreditors typically ask the Board about their role and involvement in improving student success. Thus, it is no surprise that there is typically a Board subcommittee focused on student success and learning. Equally not shocking – the Board wants to see data on student success.

How Can You Help Your Board?

So, what type of information on student success measures would be most important to share with the Board? While it can vary from institution to institution – publicly available graduation rates are almost always included. Why? Since these data are publicly available, it’s likely the Board is going to get questions about those rates. So, sharing the rates, trends, and benchmarks gives the Board an opportunity review the information in advance. And it gives you the chance to provide context for interpreting the data.

Eyeglasses resting on an open book. Perhaps someone is preparing for a Board meeting.

Have you ever been in the room with the Board when someone is explaining that public graduation rate? Worse yet – have you been the person to present on it? For most institutions this conversation goes over like a lead balloon for two reasons:

#1: Good Graduation Rates Don’t Actually Sound Good

People deeply entrenched in college student success know that the national average for graduation rates is around 50%. And it has been for decades. A graduation rate of 75% is what some colleges dream about and what others have come to expect. But for non-higher ed people (like most of your Board), a 75% graduation rate sounds like a solid C letter grade. Certainly nothing to brag about.

So, your Board may need context for understanding the rates. We can provide the comparison rates of ‘peer’ institutions, but we are quick to point out the differences between our institutions and those of our peers.

Why not speak to your Board in a language they understand? Wouldn’t it be more effective to discuss the resources directed to different groups of students, and the impact those financial and personnel decisions had on success? Using analyses that show the over- and under-performance by student group enables your Board to see precisely where the institution has been successful. Just as importantly, it highlights areas that could benefit from more of their strategic thinking.

#2: Public Graduation Rates Do Not Count All Students

The public graduation rate that is typically offered on government and third-party websites only counts those students who had never been to college before (not transfers) and attend full-time (rather than part-time). That essentially limits the population to only students who went to college right after high school. For the majority of colleges and universities – this graduation rate does NOT count all students. Not even close. How many folks outside higher ed would ever think that the graduation rates they hear about don’t consider all students?

At some institutions, this group of first-time college-goers represents less than half of the student body. The concept of NOT counting all of your students toward such an important metric is absurd to most business people. ESPECIALLY a metric that is paramount to the institutional mission the way student success is. The equivalent to business people would be counting just a portion of sales, products, revenue, or expenses. Counting a portion of a metric simply isn’t done in other industries. After all, how would a business look to its investors if its reported profits only included weekend sales?

Getting your Board the Right Information

The solution is to develop understandable graduation rates that count all students. That way, the Board gets a complete understanding of student success. RealityCheck is the tool that addresses these issues by counting all students, disaggregating them into multiple groups, and comparing actual rates with the predicted rate for each. This allows your Board to better understand student success while accounting for your unique student and institutional characteristics.

“Improve graduation rates” might be a priority for your Board, but the action steps it suggests or approves can be better driven by reliance on the results of a RealityCheck. The RealityCheck Report highlights the degree to which each group is over- or underperforming so the focus is on continuous improvement.

Learn more and get a sneak peek at your 2020 RealityCheck results. 




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.