College commencement season is filled with stories of unlikely victories against overwhelming odds. A mother of three in Arizona who dropped out of college in the '90s is finishing her bachelor's degree with a 4.0 GPA. A 62-year-old grandmother in Pennsylvania took classes online to get the degree she needs to advance at work in the oil industry. A single dad and veteran is graduating magna cum laude in engineering technology.
But these accomplishments are invisible to the federal government, who won't count any of these students — or thousands of others — when it calculates the most widely circulated college graduation rate.
Fifty-nine percent of students at four-year colleges earn a degree within six years. That's the national version of the measurement colleges are required to use for their own graduation rates according to a 1990 federal law.
What that rate should say is "59 percent of students at four-year colleges who have never been to college before, and who enroll full-time in their first semester earn a degree within six years at the same college where they started as freshmen."
That leaves out students with some college credits who never finished a degree and are coming back to try again. It leaves out students who transferred during their college careers, as 9 percent of students did in the most recent academic year. And it doesn't say what happens to the remaining 41 percent who didn't complete.
Getting more people through college has become a national priority, but the federal statistics don't necessarily show whether the US is succeeding or failing.
For some colleges, it matters that we're counting wrong
Graduation rates can have consequences. A business group put up billboards in Austin and Dallas in 2011 to criticize the local community colleges' graduation rate: The federal rate says just 4 percent of students in Austin community colleges graduate within three years.
The government measures the graduation rate this way for a reason
How different would a more inclusive graduation rate be?
There may be change on the horizon
That's at least a little more worthy of celebration at graduation time.