Website aims to change how colleges measure graduates

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Staff Writer

Each year, Pitt omits a large portion of students in its graduation rates.

The U.S. Department of Education does not allow schools to include transfer students in their calculations. 

But the Student Achievement Measure (SAM), an organization that encourages universities to post more comprehensive information about their graduation rates on their website, makes sure no student goes uncalculated. 

Christine Keller, executive director of the organization, said schools don’t account for tranfer students for because the federal government does not have access to the records needed to track a student from university to university. It could also risk counting some students twice if they included transfer students in their data. Each university is responsible for tracking the graduation rates of its transfer students.

Pitt is an “inaugural member” of the SAM and joined shortly after the website launched in 2013. Now, 532 institutions use the website to post their graduation rates. Utilizing the SAM allows universities to include transfer students in their calculations, which creates a more accurate representation of the university’s success.

Juan Manfredi, vice provost of undergraduate studies at Pitt, said SAM provides an accurate picture of Pitt’s graduation rates.

“I hope this is being given due consideration, because I think it is better than any simple ranking that has come out because it covers all kinds of dimensions,” Manfredi said.  

The idea for the organization came up in 2013, Keller said, when the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities joined with five other organizations to improve the way the U.S. Department of Education determines graduation rates. SAM includes transfer students in universities’ graduation rates.

“Rather than just one of us getting together with our institutions, we thought this was a big enough issue for higher education across all different types of universities that we should all develop this alternative method together,” Keller said.

Universities that join SAM can post data about their school on the organization’s website. Data includes separate representations for the graduation rates of first-time students, full-time students and full-time transfer students. 

“Given the way students move from institution to institution, and the variety of students graduating, the federal rate just doesn’t give us the data and information to figure out what is happening at an institution,” Keller said. 

A 2010 special report by the the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that nearly one-third of students end up transferring to another university during their college careers. 

According to Keller, most SAM website users are public, four-year institutions. She’d like more private universities and community colleges to post their data to the website. 

According to Pitt’s profile on the SAM website, 503 transfer students graduated from Pitt in spring 2013. 

Kate Ledger, a staff member of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at Pitt, said there are 830 transfer students at Pitt this fall. 

Following the U.S. Department of Education guidelines, this would leave 1,836 students unclaimed by any university. Keller said they are “unclaimed” because neither a transfer student’s original university nor the student’s new university could include the student in graduation rates.

“The federal graduation rate only tracks a very specific group of students,” Keller said. “They don’t track students across institutions.”

Manfredi questioned whether the federal standards will change any time soon.

“General standards are first-time, full-time freshman. Maybe it will change, maybe not, but they have had the same definition for several years,” Manfredi said. 

Keller said this definition was originally used as a comparison for student athletes.

“They wanted to measure the success and development of the student athletes, but they needed a group to compare to. So they chose first-time, full-time students entering higher education for the first time,” Keller said. “Now they’re the yardstick.”