The importance of college completion has risen high on the U.S. policy agenda in recent years. An obvious strategy for increasing college completion is improving graduation rates, which for public universities have hovered around 50% for decades. Higher education scholars previously have revealed many student and institutional characteristics which help explain differences in graduation rates. This study treated the variation which could not be explained by student and institutional differences as an indicator of the level of productivity associated with an institution's graduation rate. It used punctuated equilibrium theory, which suggested that productivity would be aligned with expectations from the external environment, as a conceptual framework.
Using multivariate analysis of covariance statistical techniques, the study identified several elements from the external environments of 398 public universities which had statistically significant relationships with differences in the productivity levels of their graduation rates. Statistically significant environmental elements included the type of state-level higher education plan in place, use of performance budgeting programs, existence of local governing boards, and choice of regional accrediting agency. The study found no evidence of a statistically significant effect associated with other environmental elements, notably the use of performance reporting or performance funding programs.
The results suggest that public universities which have collegial relationships with their external environments have the most productive graduation rates. Public universities on the governmental agenda in their states had more productive graduation rates than universities which were absent from the governmental agenda. Productivity, though, was not further enhanced for universities subject to the most aggressive accountability mechanisms. The public universities subject to the most aggressive accountability levels, e.g., state-level plans with targeted completion rates combined with performance budgeting programs, showed the lowest productivity levels. Perhaps the inertia of low productivity was resistant to external accountability efforts. Ironically, the public universities which enjoyed the most autonomy only showed mediocre productivity in their graduation rates.
State policymakers and higher education officials could use the study results as they reconsider the nature of their relationships and the design of accountability mechanisms in pursuit of improved college graduation rates.
UNiversity of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2010. Major: Educational Policy and Administration. Advisor: Dr. Darwin D. Hendel. 1 computer file (PDF); xvii, 289 pages, appendices A-C.
Asmussen, John G..
Why does the graduation rate productivity of U.S. public universities vary? Looking outside their boundaries for answers..
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