4
Conclusion

Our confidence in the effectiveness of graduate education in the United States depends, to a large extent, on the statistics that describe the outcomes of the enterprise. Accurate and reliable statistics that document enrollment patterns, degrees conferred, attrition rates, and postgraduate plans are vital to educators and policy makers for monitoring the performance of the system. They are also useful to prospective graduate students in making choices about where and whether to enroll.

Any system designed to produce national estimates of graduate attrition at U.S. universities would require the integration or linking of diverse data collection efforts. Such an integrated data set would need to involve a comprehensive system of statistics generated by a sample of institutions drawn from the full range of universities offering doctoral preparation. The information that is gathered would document critical aspects of student progress through post-baccalaureate studies to permit the development of policies to reduce attrition and increase degree completion.

Given the decentralized nature of graduate education in this country, however, the ability to collect and report national estimates of attrition is questionable. To a large extent, systematic information about graduate education in this country is a byproduct of the statistical activities of many independent programs. Data collection is carried out by educational institutions, professional societies, state and federal agencies, and private foundations. Some data are collected in cooperation with federal laws that require statistics to monitor compliance of the higher education community with relevant civil rights statutes, but most statistics about graduate education are generated to meet short-term institutional needs for specific information, and definitions vary to meet each individual context and information needs.

Even if there were a mechanism to collect and analyze national data on graduate attrition, the absence of comparability among the data would make systematic analysis very difficult for a number of reasons. First, the locus of data collection would necessarily be the individual university since that is the only place where individual student records are kept. Any national estimates would depend on the use of institutional administrative records (which vary markedly in content), the degree of automation, and the care with which they are maintained.

Second, because each institution maintains its own records, definitions of key variables would differ significantly from one university to the next. The critical definitions of when doctoral education begins and when students are considered to have "left" the



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--> 4 Conclusion Our confidence in the effectiveness of graduate education in the United States depends, to a large extent, on the statistics that describe the outcomes of the enterprise. Accurate and reliable statistics that document enrollment patterns, degrees conferred, attrition rates, and postgraduate plans are vital to educators and policy makers for monitoring the performance of the system. They are also useful to prospective graduate students in making choices about where and whether to enroll. Any system designed to produce national estimates of graduate attrition at U.S. universities would require the integration or linking of diverse data collection efforts. Such an integrated data set would need to involve a comprehensive system of statistics generated by a sample of institutions drawn from the full range of universities offering doctoral preparation. The information that is gathered would document critical aspects of student progress through post-baccalaureate studies to permit the development of policies to reduce attrition and increase degree completion. Given the decentralized nature of graduate education in this country, however, the ability to collect and report national estimates of attrition is questionable. To a large extent, systematic information about graduate education in this country is a byproduct of the statistical activities of many independent programs. Data collection is carried out by educational institutions, professional societies, state and federal agencies, and private foundations. Some data are collected in cooperation with federal laws that require statistics to monitor compliance of the higher education community with relevant civil rights statutes, but most statistics about graduate education are generated to meet short-term institutional needs for specific information, and definitions vary to meet each individual context and information needs. Even if there were a mechanism to collect and analyze national data on graduate attrition, the absence of comparability among the data would make systematic analysis very difficult for a number of reasons. First, the locus of data collection would necessarily be the individual university since that is the only place where individual student records are kept. Any national estimates would depend on the use of institutional administrative records (which vary markedly in content), the degree of automation, and the care with which they are maintained. Second, because each institution maintains its own records, definitions of key variables would differ significantly from one university to the next. The critical definitions of when doctoral education begins and when students are considered to have "left" the

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--> program are set by each institution and, in some cases, by each separate graduate program. Third, even if data could be collected or compiled using common definitions, the diverse structure of graduate programs would make comparison difficult. Rates of attrition would be meaningful only in the context of a particular program's admissions policies (open or selective) and its willingness to permit students to reenter who have dropped out. For example, less selective programs might expect higher rates of attrition, while programs with lenient reentry rules might have lower rates of attrition but longer time-to-degree. A case in point is the Association of American Universities (AAU)/Association of Graduate Schools (AGS) Project for Research on Doctoral Education. With longitudinal data on individual students from 1989 to the present, this project has the potential to yield systematic, ongoing information on graduate student attrition, at least at major research universities. It is constrained, however, by many of the difficulties of comparability and definition discussed here (see Text Box 8). In the face of such variability across programs, the panel concludes that it is not feasible or cost-effective to attempt to coordinate current efforts to collect information about graduate attrition and degree attainment in order to generate national estimates. Having said that, we encourage individual institutions and researchers to continue studies of graduate attrition. Such studies can provide valuable insight to institutions so that students who leave do so by design and not through inattention. TEXT BOX 8: THE AAU/AGS PROJECT FOR RESEARCH ON DOCTORAL EDUCATION Hosted by the Educational Testing Service, the AAU/AGS Project for Research on Doctoral Education collects and maintains longitudinal data on individual students in Ph.D. programs in ten selected fields at approximately forty research universities (see Appendix A for details). The project has many of the features that would be required of a national, systematic effort to study graduate student attrition: it is national in scope; it includes a range of science and humanities fields; it collects from institutions data on individual graduate students; and it maintains a longitudinal data base of changes in students' degree status over time. Data are available from the fall of 1989. One of the most difficult challenges in data analysis, as reported by project staff, is the variability in definitions of graduate student enrollment and degree status. The institutions participating in the project, and even departments within the same institution, define student status differently. They also may impose different requirements for the time limit allowed for degree completion, the need for students to be registered continuously, and the procedures for reentering after having "stopped out." In this data base, students in a degree program who have not graduated and not officially left the program are divided into "active" and "inactive" students. Inactive students are defined as those who are not enrolled but are eligible to enroll, as far as is known by the institution. Inactive students may or may not be making progress toward their degrees; they may be studying for examinations or writing their dissertation; they may have left the program without informing anyone; or they may have taken a temporary break. The ambiguity of the status of ''inactive" students makes it difficult to determine an exact number of students to include in calculating attrition. Over time, of course, most students in a given cohort will have completed their degree requirements or left the program. In the meantime, though, researchers wanting to use these data to study attrition will have to establish their own method to categorize the various types of inactive students.