Monday, May 16, 2016

Administrative Nonsense Debunked: Graduation Rates and the "Quality over Quantity" Argument

After the administration on May 6 neglected to reveal Chicago State’s horrendous graduation rate, university spokespersons surfaced to spin the story. The most prominent explanation came from Sabrina Land, who makes nearly $100,000 per year to spout bullshit. She had a familiar excuse, the Spring 2011 drop of students for poor scholarship. Actually this action serves as a constant refrain by administrators defending everything from graduation rate declines (Land) and enrollment drops (Henderson).

You might remember that, in Summer 2011, auditors (I believe) caught the university giving financial aid awards to students who were not making satisfactory progress toward degrees. Originally fined over $700,000 for the practice, the university negotiated the figure down to about $350,000. Although this scandal happened nearly two years into the Watson regime, he and his cronies blamed the policies of the previous administration. After all, no one knows better than Watson about administrative success and ethical behavior in higher education. Watson cronies have used this single event over and over to defend themselves against a variety of terrible performances on the academic side of the school. Does it hold any water?

I have examined three different Freshmen cohorts, 2006, 2009, and 2014 in order to determine what percentage of students the university expelled for poor scholarship. I’ve limited the examination to students expelled during their first year in school, except for the 2009 cohort as I will explain. I also believe the data I have discovered can be used to test Watson’s claim that the disastrous enrollment declines were part of a “right-sizing” strategy which emphasized “quality over quantity.”

First, the drops.

For the 2006 cohort, the university expelled 7.5 percent of new students for “poor scholarship” in their first year at the university.
For the 2009 cohort, the university expelled no new students, although the university dropped 6.9 percent of that cohort in Spring 2011 (the administration’s watershed year).
For the 2014 cohort, the university expelled 14 percent of new students in their first year.
For the Freshmen cohort, the 2009 expulsion percentage is actually about what you would expect based on 2006 data.

Looking at the data, it appears to me that the practice for which we got fined was actually a Watson practice. They got caught, had to pay a fine and blamed it on the previous administration. Obviously the university was lax in the years before Watson, but his administration not only had this financial aid scandal, it also got us put on provisional status for our financial aid shenanigans. My money here is on Watson and his troupe as the reason the university kept so many non-performing students on the rolls. After all, he crowed in 2010 about the school’s increased enrollment. Leon Finney attributed the increase to Watson's “leadership.”

Now the quality over quantity argument.

Several numbers come into play here. First, first-year retention rates are similar, 54 percent in 2006, 60 percent in 2009, 58 percent in 2014. The percentage of students leaving school immediately after the first year are also similar: 37 percent in 2006, 34 percent in 2009, 41 percent in 2014. However, expulsion of students for poor scholarship has increased dramatically, from 7.5 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2014. In addition to the 35 students expelled prior to Fall 2015, the university has expelled 26 more students in the two subsequent semesters. This brings the total expulsions to 61, or 24.7 percent. Adding to the total the 27 students who left school on probation between Fall 2014 and Spring 2016, 35.5 percent of the incoming first-year students left school within two years after either flunking out or performing so poorly as to be on probation. I don’t think anyone can argue with a straight face that an incoming class in which more than 1/3 of the students are failing represents “quality.” Of course, I was not part of the Watson administration.

As a final observation, we have been hammered for years over our graduation rate, as unfair as that might be to our school. Why do we continue to admit as full-time first-year students, people who are highly likely to fail? Why don’t we insist that only students who demonstrate promise for success in college are admitted as first-year students and ask the others to attend Community Colleges in order to become transfer students? Given our recent enrollment performance, arguments like “we’re unique” or the “numbers don’t reflect what we do,” are not particularly compelling. What is Einstein’s definition of insanity? Maybe it’s time to take a new path.


  1. And how would you identify students who are likely to fail: ACT scores? high school grades? faculty approval? As you point out CSU, for years, whether appropriate or not, has been hammered for its low graduation rates compared to other Illinois state universities. Take a look at CSU's student demographics and you look pretty good compared to all public universities and some privates.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by saying that our demographics "look pretty good." As far as test scores, I'm no fan. What I would like to see us do is analyze whatever data exists to determine what factors our successful students have in common. I have no problem taking admitting at-risk students, but given the politics surrounding graduation rates and the consistent (if distorted) criticism we receive for ours, I think it might be incumbent upon our school to limit the first-time students to those we feel are most likely to succeed. Otherwise, we better start doing a much better job explaining why the graduation rate is basically not applicable to CSU.