Graduate Student Graduation and Completion Rates – Long Overdue
What are the national graduation or completion rates for graduate students? No one knows … ok – one organization might (but we’ll get to that). Higher education knows very little about its nearly four million graduate students beyond total numbers and basic demographics, at a national level. That’s right – four million or 15% of students attending one of 6,527 colleges in the US. (That’s how many institutions report to IPEDS!). This article shares information about the data that are collected on graduate student graduation and completion rates at the national level. And we take a look at available data that could be used today without adding another data collection or burden to institutions.
We don’t have graduate student graduation and completion metrics
Why you ask? Great question! The data simply are not collected at a national level. And to be fair – states, higher education organizations, and some institutions know A LOT of information about their graduate students. They track them, run analyses on them — all with the aim of increasing graduate student completion, improving the graduate student experience, and becoming more efficient and effective.
But what about IPEDS?
They collect a ton of information. Indeed – IPEDS is my go-to resource for a lot of benchmarking (and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been an IPEDS Educator for over 10 years). IPEDS is THE most comprehensive national higher education data system in the world. (Yep – lots of institutions in other countries ask to participate – voluntarily.)
IPEDS has 13 integrated (that’s what the I stands for in IPEDS) surveys. [Survey sounds voluntary – so I call them reports because they are required if one wants access to Title IV funding and some other federal benefits.] Of the 13 IPEDS reports (list below), only one of the reports collects information about graduate student completion – the Completions survey. There are three IPEDS surveys that focus on undergraduate graduation rates (Graduation Rates, Graduation Rates 200 and Outcome Measures). Yet, none include graduate student graduation rates.
IPEDS Completions Survey
The IPEDS Completions survey collects data on the number of students that complete a degree in a 12-month period. Luckily – at the graduate level, the data are disaggregated by:
- Master’s degree
- Doctor’s degree
- Professional practice
- Post master’s
Additionally, the data are also disaggregated by:
- Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code
(Of course, undergraduate completions are also collected, but since that’s not our focus in this article, we are just listing out the graduate information. You can find more details about the entire IPEDS completions survey in the IPEDS instructions.)
Here is a sample of what the collection screen looks like. This may give you a better of idea of the data collected. Note the column headers (CIP Code, Award Level, Gender, and Race/Ethnicity). IPEDS also collects information whether or not the program is a distance education program (bonus!)
Are there other Graduate Student Graduation and Completion Rates options?
Well… sort of, but each has its pros and cons. Let’s explore each.
NCES Sample Surveys
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducts a series of surveys by gathering information from a sample of students (aka ‘sample-surveys’). These surveys are sophisticated – ensuring a representative sample of students in the country. Because students are the focus of the surveys (not institutions), a small percentage of institutions are part of the collection. Again – the focus is on the students.
The collection of information is quite thorough:
- Data from the colleges and universities the student attended
- Data from financial aid records (if available)
- Phone or email questionnaire to the students
The downside to the thoroughness is that these surveys cannot be conducted on an annual basis. And – because most of them are longitudinal surveys, tracking students over upwards of a decade, the data take quite a while to collect. Some argue that information about a cohort of students that is six or 10 years old isn’t relevant to today’s decision makers.
Below is a list of NCES Sample Surveys that are focused on postsecondary education (aka – higher education). Of the five sample surveys, one (Baccalaureate and Beyond) had a graduate student focus with a 1993 cohort of bachelor’s students. The study tracked these students through 2003 – 18 years ago. And a few things have changed since then.
Just in case you want to know a bit about the findings on graduate students from that survey, Nevill and Chen (2007) wrote an article using the data. They found that: “Rates of persistence and completion were higher among students who entered graduate school immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree, who attended full time and enrolled continuously, and who enrolled in multiple graduate degree programs.”
But – unfortunately, the data are not structured in a way to tell us about specific institutions. So – good to have some information, but usability for decision-making diminishes when applied to an individual institution.
It is worth mentioning the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), Graduate Survey – because that sure looks graduate focused – and it is. However, it isn’t focused on graduate student graduation and completion rates. Rather – you guessed it – the NPSAS survey focused on student aid. Below is a screenshot of the data categories (left hand side) that are available for the NPSAS, Graduate survey. Sadly, there are no graduate student graduation and completion rates information. [Sidenote – You too can explore any of the sample survey data in NCES’ awesome Datalab via Powerstats. I sooo wish this existed back in my dissertation days. Instead, I had to wait to gain access to the restricted components of the Beginning Postsecondary Study data, which elongated my dissertation time.]
Individual Institution Websites
As I mentioned earlier, some institutions analyze their graduate student data – even though they are not required to report it. (Kudos to those institutions going the extra mile just because it is a good thing to do!). Let’s take National University. They have an interactive student achievement website that includes graduation rates by detailed degree programs (image below) — including at the graduate level!
However, absent a common standard, this means that institutions report in different ways, use different definitions, disaggregate differently, etc. In short, it is hard to compare graduate student graduation and completion rates from one institution to another. And – let’s assume that all institutions use IPEDS definitions for calculating undergraduate outcomes and simply apply them to graduate student cohorts – and then post the information on their websites.
One will need to painstakingly scour each institution’s website for the information – because each will house it in a different spot on their website. Then after finding it, a researcher/interested person would need to extract the information from the website or PDF and put it into a spreadsheet (or something that lends itself for analysis). The likelihood of someone doing this for the 2,082 graduate colleges and universities is 0 percent. [Yep – there are nearly 2,100 colleges and universities that offer one or more graduate programs – so this impacts A LOT of institutions.]
This brings us full circle to our third and final option – and the teaser in the first line of this article.
National Student Clearinghouse (NSC)
The NSC is one of THE most well respected organizations when it comes to student level data. And why shouldn’t they be? They have been perfecting their work for nearly 30 years (started in 1993). The overwhelming majority of institutions report enrollment data to NSC because their system “talks to” the federal government’s financial aid reporting system (National Student Loan Data System – NSLDS). Once an institution provides their data for NSLDS to NSC, they get access to a lot of other NSC services. This data maven’s FAVORITE is StudentTracker. “StudentTracker® is the only nationwide source of college enrollment and degree data. Nearly 3,600 colleges and universities — enrolling over 99 percent of all students in public and private U.S. institutions — regularly provide enrollment and graduation data to the Clearinghouse.”
In short, NSC knows by student and by institution – ALL institutions that they attended – whether they graduated or not, including graduate students (sweet!!).
That’s just what we needed – right?
Yes – the institution collects graduate student outcomes data. But, the dataset is protected information because it is at the student level. (NSC takes the protection of student information VERY seriously).
So – the good news is, the data exist. In fact, the NSC has looked as some graduate student data in 2017. Further suggesting, NSC data can answer some very important questions about graduate student graduation and completion rates (more on that in a few paragraphs).
The bad news is that institutions can only query the NSC StudentTracker databases for their own students (and since the institution provided the data on completion – there is no point in asking NSC StudentTracker who graduated at one’s institution when your institutional research office has that info and reports it to IPEDS). This means that individual institutions can’t benchmark to other institutions without entering into a data/information sharing agreement with other institutions (a very long process).
Back to the good news — the data exist and institutions have been reporting these data to NSC for decades. Even better news – NO, zero, zip, zilch, nada – colleges and universities need additional reporting to answer important questions about graduate student success. Which has significant implications on ALL of higher education and our communities.
What questions can we answer with these data?
I’m glad you asked. I’m a classically trained researcher with a practical-based approach. So, while I do my due diligence in the research and statistics space, it also has to make practical sense too. That’s the lens that I use when attempting to answer the BIG question…
So what? So what if we know graduate student graduation and completion rates? What practical value does this add?
Here are just a few potential questions that we could answer with the data. Note – all of these can – and should – be sliced and diced by institutional type, size, student characteristics, etc. I come at this question from three different perspectives, based on my own academic and professional background.
From a policy perspective (My doctorate is in higher education policy – so this is the short list).
- To what degree do different financial aid programs contribute toward increasing graduate student success?
- Under what institutional conditions do minority graduate students increase their likelihood for completion?
- How do we leverage findings from increasing minority graduate student completion to have an impact on the number of minority faculty teaching at the undergraduate level? This might bolster undergraduate minority completion rates.
From a data perspective (I’ve been in the field of institutional research and have served as the head of IR offices for over 20 years).
- What is the time to degree by award level (e.g., master’s, doctoral research/scholarship vs doctoral professional practice)? And how does that compare across our peer and aspirational institutions?
- What are the trends of graduate graduation rates by peer and aspirational groups?
From an accreditation perspective (I’ve served as an accreditation liaison at multiple institutions, served on institutional accreditation teams, and been an accreditation reviewer. Currently, I serve as a Research Fellow for WSCUC and on the Data Advisory Council at NWCCU.)
- From which institutions can we glean graduate student graduation rate best practices? Sharing those practices with other institutions may help them improve their student successes.
- How can and should team reviewers evaluate graduate student graduation and completion rates such that it informs accrediting recommendations and actions?
Wrapping it up
I hope you are deeply encouraged by the fact that graduate student graduation and completion rate data exist – and are just waiting for us to discover it. In the meantime, while we all wait for national efforts to get underway, individual institutions can take action now by analyzing their existing data – and calculating graduate student retention and graduation rates — as well as thinking about better ways to measure student success.