In this economic landscape, improving educational attainment outcomes has become a primary goal of public policy. In light of this goal, two key metrics have come to define--in public policy as well as in US News rankings--the quality and effectiveness of individual higher educational institutions: student persistance--the percentage of students who return to school for their second year--and graduation rates. Accordingly, colleges invest an increasing share in limited resources to providing support to struggling students--as well as seeking "better" students--to improve their outcomes along these metrics, and thereby demonstrate their increasing quality and effectiveness to potential students, alumni donors, accrediting bodies, and the political establishment.
However, as much as we prefer simple measures of complex problems, equating success with persistance and graduation rates may obscure a more nuanced story. Over the past several decades, we have doubled the college participation rate--the share of the high school graduates who go on to college--to over 70%, and along the way a higher share of college matriculents are first generation students. For these students, whose parents did not attend college, the definition of success is often more complicated.
Even as my wife and I flew to Johns Hopkins--an elite university where student persistance rates are nearly 100%, and well over 90% graduate--she told me about a student of hers--call her Marielle--who will not be coming back for her sophomore year at Mills College, the small, liberal arts college where she works. Marielle comes from a rural family, is the first in her family to go to college, and did well in her first year. But she will go home because her mother told her the she and Marielle's brother "need her to be home." Perhaps she will continue to take classes at the local community college next year.
Marielle's is not an unusual story. Unlike Johns Hopkins, almost one-third of Mills College students are the first in their family to attend college. The most recently published data suggest that 77% of students return for their second year, and 63% graduate. Marielle will go home, and she may or may not return to school.
But Marielle's departure should not be viewed--as statistically it will be--as evidence of failure by Mills College. In our higher educational marketplace, schools play different roles and take on different challenges. Johns Hopkins is a world-renowned research institution, while Mills is an excellent undergraduate college that takes pride in admitting students like Marielle, and supporting them to go as far as they can. And each school defines success differently and official statistics should reflect these differences. By finishing a year of college, Marielle has embarked on a transformative pathway that will continue in her family. She may accede to her mother's wishes, but one thing is clear: she has taken the important first step and her own children will likely go to college. They will have the opportunity to complete the journey that Marielle started. In the world of first generation college students, Marielle is a story of success.