This is an image of graduates wearing caps and gowns symbolizing student success.

Why the Focus on First-time, Full-time Students?

Did you ever wonder why there’s so much emphasis on First-time, Full-time (FTFT) student success? Why do first-timers get so much more attention than transfers? What about part-time students? Adult learners? Online students?

Not paying equal attention to these other student groups doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Almost daily, we hear something about the declining number of high school graduates. Fewer high school grads means fewer students available to enter institutions as First-time, Full-time students.  So, many institutions are turning their attention to non-traditional students (adults, returning students,  online learners). This effort has the added benefit of serving the employer community by training a broader range of candidates with the skills and credentials to meet local workforce needs.

But with this shifting tide of the type of students enrolling in colleges and universities, isn’t it time we looked for new metrics to measure their success? One that takes ALL students into account?

Black and white image of a diverse group of eight college graduates in caps/gowns. We want to look at ALL students, not just first-time full-time.

In 2017-18, IPEDS introduced new required data elements, Outcome Measures, designed to track the status of all undergraduate students in a 12-month period. Unfortunately, most institutions continue to rely primarily on the traditional graduation rate metric, which only counts FTFT students – a narrow sliver of the student body. Much like an accountant wouldn’t assess revenue or expenses from only one department to determine the company’s profit, it’s not ok to measure student success by only considering some students.

Here’s how this whole thing started . . . In the early 1990s, the NCAA introduced graduation rates for athletes. But how would one know if, for example, a 42% athletic graduation rate is something to boast about? You need a comparison group, of course. So, who do you compare 18-21 year old athletes to?

Answer: Other 18-21 year olds at the SAME institution.

After all – if the athlete wasn’t playing a sport at the institution, there is a decent chance that he or she would have been enrolled at the college anyway. So, higher education began collecting data on all First-time, Full-time students in order to better understand athlete graduation rates. Who would’ve thought?

As a result, First-time, Full-time graduation rates were flawed from the get-go. They were relevant for some institutions (those that have athletes) and didn’t make much sense for others (those that have no or small populations of FTFT students).

And if the FTFT graduation metric doesn’t accurately reflect the success rates of your institution’s students, why would you use it as your primary measure of student success?

Students wearing graduation caps

Where are We Now?

Fast forward 30 years, and we finally have IPEDS Outcome Measures data that accounts for multiple student groups (First-time/Transfer, Full-time/Part-time, Pell/Non-Pell). IEHE has taken this data to the next level with RealityCheck. Now, you can account for institutional and student characteristics—and all your students—to give your institution a far better picture of student success.

Want to Learn More about How RealityCheck Can Help Shift Your Institution’s Focus?

Find out more about RealityCheck by contacting our team at IEHE. Learn how you can:

  • Use your RealityCheck Report to understand what you’re getting right, and where you have room for improvement.
  • Focus your institution’s limited resources on students who can benefit most from the support.
  • Show others the evidence that your team is making a difference in student success.
  • Better tell your institution’s student success story.




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.