An article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education points out how recently the "graduation rate" measure came into existence. Calling the graduation rate "a basic consumer fact," the article observes that the federal government didn't even begin collecting this information until the 1990s. Now that the common measure has become more inaccurate, in part because of the large number of students who transfer between colleges, the regulators are proposing improved systems of measurement. But let's consider the possibility that the very idea of the graduation rate is misleading and destructive.
Many institutions should graduate low percentages of the people who attend. Any commuter college that serves the needs of local people, for example, should be available for those who take classes at their own paces and who take the classes they need when they can take them. Some may study not to get that piece of paper at the end, but (mirabile dictu) to learn something. And the college is not a whit worse for their not having obtained the degree.
By holding up the graduation rate as a measure of quality, moreover, federal policymakers focus attention on the credential, and thereby help to drain it of its meaning. The measure turns education into the processing of numbers. The more people we can move through the system to credentials, the better we seem to be, even if they are actually learning nothing.
In order to increase the numbers of degrees we hand out, we have to make it easier to get those wall ornaments. This means lowering the difficulty of education, turning it into an intellectual junk food for mass consumption. At the same time, since graduation is redefined as the responsibility of the institution, not the individual, the concept of the graduation rate encourages passivity and entitlement by the "consumers" of supposedly higher education.