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community college graduation rates

Scorned for the abysmally low number of their students who earn degrees, the nation’s community colleges may be about to more than double their graduation rates—not by turning out a single additional graduate, but by changing the way the rates are calculated.

The move comes two and a half years after President Barack Obama called for community colleges to produce an additional five million degree-holders by 2020.

The paperwork change, recommended by an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Education, would revise the formula for determining community-college graduation rates to include the large number of students who transfer to other schools after having completed at least 30 credits at a community college.

That alone would raise community-college completion rates to 40 percent, according to the American Association of Community Colleges—up from the 18 percent of community-college students who now receive a two-year associate degree within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The new completion rate would also count students who take up to four years, rather than the current three, to finish their two-year degrees. It is not clear how much further that would raise the completion figures.

A formal announcement about the proposal is scheduled for this month, though officials are already meeting to work out the technical details.

Critics say community colleges should be spending their time helping students graduate, not altering the rules by which their performance is measured.

“It doesn’t change the fact that a significant number of students do come to community colleges to earn a degree, but don’t,” said Stan Jones, a former Indiana commissioner of higher education and president of Complete College America, which is pushing to increase the number of Americans with such credentials.

“I would rather see people focusing on improving the graduation rates than trying to defend or reconstruct them,” Jones said.

Changing the graduation-rate calculations won’t make any difference at all in the proportion of Americans aged 25-34 who have degrees, which is also a priority of the Lumina Foundation for Education, said its president, Jamie Merisotis. The United States ranks 16th in the world by this measure, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

community college graduation rates

“It’s going to be very important to be clear that this is not suggesting that more students are literally completing college and attaining a credential,” Merisotis said. (The Lumina Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

But Merisotis said he’s sympathetic to community colleges’ argument that the nontraditional backgrounds of their students—85 percent of whom work full time, almost a third of whom are balancing their educations with family obligations, and some of whom plan to transfer to other two- or four-year institutions—make the current formula for calculating graduation rates unfair.

Counting only the number of students who graduate within two years “creates a problem in terms of our ability to understand who is actually being successful” by, for example, transferring to a four-year college or university and getting a bachelor’s degree, Merisotis said.

Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College in Massachusetts and a member of the advisory committee, said very low graduation rates have made community colleges “into a punch line, and that just infuriates me. It’s usually used as a metaphor for somebody that’s not very smart. You can’t understand how deeply hurtful this statistic has been to our schools.”

Considering how many community-college students, compared to students in other kinds of higher-education institutions, are nonwhite—36 percent overall, and many more on some campuses—using the low graduation rate “is almost racist,” Burton said.

He acknowledged that the Obama administration’s focus on community colleges has intensified this scrutiny.

“The hardest thing we’ve had to do is describe a community college to a country that’s never cared before, as institutions with incredibly diverse student bodies and diverse missions for students with diverse goals that are not reflected in the current calculations,” Burton said.

The new formula, he said, “will just acknowledge that students succeed here in different ways.”

Counting students as having successfully completed a community college if they accumulate 30 or more credits before transferring would be tracked through the National Student Clearinghouse, a little-known nonprofit organization that monitors the registration status of every student in America as well as how much money he or she borrows toward educational costs.

“If you consider transfer to be a successful outcome—and many community-college people say their job is to get the student into the four-year college—then the graduation rate has to rise,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the advisory committee’s chairman.

Many students who start at community colleges, Bailey said, discover that they’re comfortable doing college-level work and transfer to four-year schools without staying long enough to earn associate degrees.

“Let’s look at it this way,” Bailey said. “The graduation rate as it stands now is easy to dismiss—meaningless. So whatever it is, as far as that’s concerned, you don’t have a graduation rate.”

Changing the math, he said, doesn’t let community colleges off the hook for completion rates that will still be lower than 50 percent.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Oh my God, community colleges have improved—they’ve gone from 20 percent to 40 percent in the last year,’ ” said Bailey. “That’s ridiculous.”

Even if the overall community-college graduation rate hits 40 percent, he said, that still means three out of every five students are failing to graduate.

“Will we say that’s a good number,” Bailey asked, “and we can all go home now?”

This story also appeared on the College, Inc. blog of The Washington Post on March 8, 2012.

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  1. This is what happens when people try to report or comment on something they don’t fully understand or have other agendas. Yes, I agree that there should always be additional attempts to get more graduates, but the role of the community college needs to be understood by those reporting on it, and those making laws regarding it. The community college by nature is set up to have low entrance standards, if any, in order to give all people an opportunity to pursue a college degree. Because of that, many students will never achieve a degree because they were marginal students in high school and can’t make it, or are being forced to attend by parents, or are taking classes to retrain because they are out of a job, or are enrolled so that they can receive a financial aid refund. As stated, many of the degree seeking students transfer to a four year school before they graduate from their community college because they have the general ed classes they need in order to transfer to a 4 year school. In fact, in some cases students purposely don’t get a degree because they are eligible for more financial aid at a 4 year school if they haven’t earned a degree. It’s not that the community colleges are changing the rules to make the numbers look better, they just want to be judged fairly instead of the way this article tries to make it look.

  2. Open enrollment and adult-serving four-year institutions have issues similar to community colleges. A review of the data on student attendance patterns and risk factors related to adult and part-time students, shows that the first-time, full-time freshmen graduation rates tracked by IPEDS are not representative of the outcomes for 75% of college students who attend community colleges and adult-serving institutions. Completing 30 credit hours is no small feat for many adult students and yet there are critics and skeptics of this new reporting metric. One size does not fit all in many cases and this is yet another one. Give the two-year colleges credit for persistence for students who complete 30 hours and transfer but don’t count it as a “completion,” otherwise we’ll be double counting our graduates if the student graduates from the institution that they transferred to. Have an open dialogue with adult-serving and open enrollment institutions to determine if there are a representative group of metrics that they use to measure their success. My guess is that they know their student attendance patterns and reasons for transferring/dropping out much better than those whose perspective is clouded by their more traditional experiences.

  3. Tom makes a several good points. Unfortunately, his generalization that “many students will never achieve a degree because they were marginal students in high school and can’t make it,” fails to recognize that many students who don’t to perform to their fullest potential in high school actually go on to significant academic success from community college through graduate school. Indeed, a many low-achievers in high school are simply gifted, but bored students who lack the supervision, motivation, and resources necessary to excel within the current system.

  4. It’s not a generalization. I may have failed to mention that some students that were marginal students in high school go on to do great things once going on to a community college. I have a brother in law that is a perfect example of that. But there are many more students that are still marginal students and stop attending. The mission of the community college is to give all a chance at achieving at a high level. Some do, some don’t. But that is one of the reasons that judging a community college solely on graduation rates is being questioned. Community colleges could make entrance requirements higher but that would defeat the purpose of the mission. The author of this article and some of the legislators aren’t understanding this. Again, as I stated before, all schools should strive to increase graduation rates, but the community colleges should be judged fairly on this because graduation from a CC doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

  5. As long as 4-year schools do not require an AA or AS for transfers, there’s a reduced incentive to get the 2-year degree. Statistically, I’m a CC drop-out, having transferred to a university before completing my AA.

  6. Tom is right. I went to a community college to get my basic classes out of the way because it was cheaper to do it that way. I never intended to get an associates degree there because I didn’t need one. An associates degree would have required me to take some extra classes I didn’t need for my BA, and you can bypass an associates and go straight for a BA. I transferred to a 4 year college and am now working on my PhD, however, as far as the community college is concerned, I am considered an unsuccessful student because I never got my associates degree. I think it is great that they are finally going to recognize that students like myself are not failures of the system.

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