Benchmarking Doctoral Programs

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to

This month’s question is answered by Laura Fingerson, Associate Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Capella University.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. You are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article.

fingerson_laura.jpgDear Laura: We have several doctoral programs at my institution, but I am having a hard time finding ways to benchmark how well they are doing. I was just at the AIR Forum in DC, and most of the discussions on benchmarking were about undergraduate programs, such as with IPEDS data. Also, our programs serve adults who are part-time students, often because they work full-time. Do you have any suggestions?

Great question!  We are in the same boat. Over a quarter of our students at Capella University are in doctoral programs. Masters programs are also a challenge to benchmark, but doctoral programs are our biggest challenge because of their length and complexity. The closest benchmarking I found was the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion project for cohorts from 1992-2004, but that effort is limited to Ph.D. programs, does not include the many professional doctorates, and is now dated.

To address this lack of benchmarking, we started calling other institutions serving part-time students (often working adults), asking if they would be interested in getting our data together, developing definitions, and generating benchmarks. I also sought potential third-parties, who would collect and report on the data. 

At the AIR Forum in DC, we had our kick-off meeting for a new Doctoral Benchmarking Alliance. This effort will gather institutions to formulate shared definitions of retention and graduation rates for part-time students in doctoral programs for comparative purposes. We have several institutions already on board and are looking for many more to join! The more institutions we have, the more valuable the benchmarking data will be. 

NORC at the University of Chicago is the independent third party who will collect, normalize, and present benchmarked data.  They have expertise in data collection, research, and analytics, and currently conduct the Survey of Earned Doctorates (for the NSF, NIH, DoE, NEH, USDA, and NASA) and the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients. They have recently launched their Higher Education Analytics Center, with particular interest in career and professional pathways for graduate degree holders.  NORC’s Data Enclave is an existing tool that can house, archive, curate, and index an individual institution's data in a protected, secure environment. In addition to benchmarking, NORC also offers custom analyses and institutional representatives can run their own analyses. No institution will have direct access to any other institution’s microdata. All participating institutions will share in the costs.

The next challenge is to develop our metrics for benchmarking. If you have doctoral programs and you are in institutional research, then you know what a challenge it is to determine which students are in the denominator and which students are in the numerator. Do we start counting students at the start of coursework? After comprehensive/qualifying exams? At the start of dissertation? How long should the program take? We also want to consider covariates, such as gender, race and ethnicity, age bracket, first generation status, incoming financial aid debt, and more.

If you are interested in being a founding member of this Doctoral Benchmarking Alliance, where you can work with other institutions to shape the definitions and metrics, please join us! Contact Laura Fingerson ( or Jake Bartolone ( .




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