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Whether speaking about K-12 or higher education, “accountability” is the buzzword among educators and policy wonks.

How to best measure accountability, however, remains something educators and legislators struggle with, experts say.

One measure being looked at by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics compares the cost of attending a university or college to the percentage of students who graduate in four to six years. This data recently was highlighted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based publication well-known within the higher education community.

In comparing university tuition and fees to graduation rates, the U.S. Department of Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education drew an association between higher costs and higher percentages of students graduating in four years.

In Virginia in 2010, the average four-year graduation rate was 49.1 percent. About 68 percent of Virginia students graduated within six years of entering a university or college. Only those students who entered a university as freshmen were counted, leaving about 30.5 percent of graduates out of the calculation. Transfer students were not included in the totals, which counted 27,481 students who graduated in 2010.

“If you look at Virginia, you can see we have the fourth-highest graduation rate,” said Tod Massa, director of policy research and data warehousing for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Delaware, Iowa and Washington state are the top three, respectively.

Massa added Virginia also has more students attending colleges and universities.

“By and large, over time, our colleges have improved,” he said. “The more selective a university is, the higher the graduation rate. … The University of Virginia has the lowest amount of Pell Grant recipients [among the state’s schools].”

The UVA was among the state’s top performers, with 84.5 percent of its students graduating in four years and 92.7 percent of students graduating within six years. The state’s flagship university also had one of the higher spending per completion rates of $110,828 per student.

Following UVA in terms of four-year graduation rate were:

ŸThe College of William & Mary, 82.2 percent, $68,367 per completion;

ŸJames Madison University, 67.5 percent, $49,390;

ŸVirginia Tech, 53.3 percent, $58,461;

ŸThe University of Mary Washington, 67.9 percent, $45,959.

Also listed was the Virginia Military Institute, which had a 70 percent four-year graduation rate in 2010, costing $163,502 per completion.

George Mason University ranked seventh in the state: a four-year graduation rate of 39.3 percent; a six-year rate of 63.4 percent. However, the cost for students attending Mason —$49,311 — was less than half that at UVA.

“Mason is in a unique position compared to William & Mary or UVA. We have a higher level of transfer students, a higher number of part-time students,” said Karen Gentemann, Mason’s associate provost for Institutional Effectiveness.

Mason also has one of the highest percentages in the nation of students receiving Pell Grants, which are federal grants provided to low-income students. About 25 percent of students at Mason receive Pell Grant funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kris Smith, Mason’s associate provost of the Office of Institutional Research and Reporting, said there is a correlation between cost and graduation rates. However, she said much more than money goes into showing the quality of education students receive at an institution.

“I think many of the numbers they used are out there and used to rank institutions. There are limits to this type of information and what we can use it for,” Smith said. “I think there is a trend there, but I think people are getting great educations from more affordable institutions.”

Smith and Gentemann said they are seeing shifts in the characteristics of students coming to college. More and more students work part-time or full-time on top of taking classes. About 78 percent of Mason students reported working while going to school in 2010.

“I think that’s having a major impact on graduation rates,” Gentemann said. “Students are working and it takes longer to graduate.”

And more and more students are transferring from other institutions be it two-year or four-year, they said. A lot of these students are successful, but were not included in the percentage of four- or six-year graduates, she said.

“It’s very compelling,” Gentemann said of the data correlating cost with graduation rates. “You have parents looking at this and saying, ‘If my child goes here they are going to graduate’… It’s more complex than that.”

SCHEV’s Massa agreed.

“If it helps inform the conversation, that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think people have to know what college completion looks like. … But to hold colleges solely responsible for college completion is not right. Students are adults” and should be responsible for their educational attainment.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com