College president disputes MacKinnon panel report’s statement on low completion rates at Alberta post secondaries

The graduation rate data included in an influential blue ribbon panel report last week may paint an inaccurate picture of Alberta post-secondary students’ success, said the head of one institution caught in its crosshairs.

Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon speaks about the report by the panel she chaired on the state of Alberta’s finances, at the McDougall Centre in Calgary on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Gavin Young / Postmedia, file

Graduation data included in an influential blue-ribbon panel report last week may paint an inaccurate picture of Alberta post-secondary students’ success, said the head of one institution caught in its crosshairs.

The report stated many students who enrolled in publicly funded colleges and universities never finish their programs, and suggested completion rates are substantially lower at some institutions.

The six-member panel, struck by the United Conservative government to dig into Alberta’s spending and chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, made recommendations to change Alberta’s post-secondary system, including a review of which higher education institutions are financially viable.

It recommended concentrating public funding to some institutions, rather than spreading funding to institutes running similar programs.

The panel also pointed to data, compiled by KPMG, showing that at nine institutions, fewer than 60 per cent of students had completed their certificates, diplomas or degrees three years after they normally would have finished their programs.

Upon request, the advanced education ministry provided more detailed data used to inform the panel report. It examined the cohort of Alberta students who started at a technical institute, college or university in 2011.

It shows that of students who started a bachelor’s degree in 2011, 79 per cent of students at the universities of Alberta and Calgary had graduated by three years after their normal program length. At Athabasca University, the completion rate was 35 per cent, and at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, it was 49 per cent.

Diploma program completion rates over the same time period ranged from a low of 54 per cent at Portage College to a high of 80 per cent at Northern Lakes College.

While 77 per cent of students completed their certificate at NorQuest College, only 22 per cent of Portage students did.

The KPMG report highlighted Portage College specifically, pointing to its completion rate of less than 40 per cent.

The press secretary for the advanced education minister said the data is part of a larger report on Alberta’s higher education institutions, to be released at an unspecified later date.

Dated data

Nancy Broadbent, president and CEO of Lac La Biche-based Portage College, said flinging out damning data without context has caused “huge reputational damage” that is unwarranted.

“All they’re going to have heard is ‘Boy, Portage must have some pretty crappy programs because they had a 40 per cent completion rate,’” she said Friday.

Many of the 1,100 students enrolled at Portage in 2011 had no intention of completing a certificate or a diploma, she said. Woodland firefighters, for example, would take one or two courses to upgrade their skills. People who wanted to work as child-care providers would take a couple of courses to qualify them for a job in the then-hot employment market.

In fact, the completion numbers became so misleading, the advanced education ministry in 2013 changed how it collected the information, Broadbent said.

In 2017-18, 76 per cent of Portage students in diploma or degree programs successfully completed their courses that year. The college counted 83 per cent of graduates as employed within six-to-eight months of graduation.

Some community college students also transfer to universities to complete a degree, which can affect the college’s apparent graduation rate, Broadbent said.

She said it’s also unclear whether the report’s data represents graduation rates, or completion rates, which are calculated differently.

Unlike some other institutions, Portage has a mandate to educate people from northeastern Alberta who have learning disabilities or may not have completed high school.

At last count, 16 per cent of Portage students were single parents. Twenty-seven per cent did not have a high school diploma.

Unique circumstances

Alberta University of the Arts, in Calgary, also had a comparatively low completion rate in the report. That was no surprise to vice-president academic and provost André Plante.

The graduation rate is on par with other art and design institutes across North America, he said in a Friday email. AU Arts students have higher rates of mental health problems, suicidal thoughts and learning challenges — a scenario the university is attempting to tackle with more academic advisers, counsellors and mental health programs, he said.

The university is also noticing an increase in part-time students, he said.

Athabasca University had the lowest number of students who completed their bachelor’s degrees in the 2011 cohort.

The mostly online university, which enrols students from across Canada, has also been the subject of external financial and operational reviews when concerns arose about its viability.

In a Friday statement, Athabasca University president Neil Fassina said the majority of students work full time, have families and are involved with communities while taking classes. Other students take credits at Athabasca while enrolled at other institutions because the online model better suits their schedule, he said.

The university did not dispute the accuracy of the report’s data in its response.

“Like many others in the system, AU is working through the details of the (MacKinnon) report to fully understand the potential impacts for Athabasca University, the comprehensive academic and research university sector, and the post-secondary system overall,” Fassina’s statement said, adding administrators are “incredibly optimistic about the future of our university.”

The government has yet to say which of the MacKinnon report recommendations it might act upon.