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How should “success” be defined and measured at America’s community colleges? It sounds like an easy question that should have an equally easy answer. But the question turns out to be complicated.

So does the answer.

A common approach to measuring success at most educational institutions – from high schools and community colleges to four-year universities and graduate schools – is to look at a seemingly straightforward and important metric: the graduation rate. If an institution isn’t graduating most of its students, the argument runs, then it must not be doing a good job.

Media coverage often takes this approach. An article in the New York Post last year, “2-Year Degree of Difficulty,” is representative. It reported a graduation rate of 2.3 percent for the six community colleges in the City University of New York system. The data are accurate but the picture they paint is misleading.

The traditional way of calculating graduation rates – counting only full-time students who earn degrees from the institutions where they start – leaves out many students who do in fact succeed by transferring to and later graduating from four-year institutions. (Students who don’t earn degrees before transferring are usually counted as dropouts.)

Also, community colleges tend to enroll much higher percentages of students at risk of dropping out than do four-year institutions. This is one reason why a side-by-side comparison of graduation rates at community colleges and four-year institutions doesn’t make sense. On average, students who attend community colleges are more likely than their peers at four-year colleges to be older, lower-income and working full or part-time. They are also more likely to be English language learners, have children at home and have been out of school for a long time.

Nor is graduation always, or even often, the goal of those who enroll. A great many people who attend community colleges enroll for job training or retraining, or to take basic-skills courses, or to earn certificates – none of which counts in most graduation-rate calculations.

Community colleges have multiple missions, unlike most four-year institutions, which tend to see their sole mission as producing graduates.

More so than just about any other American institution, community colleges are asked to be all things to all people. They admit anyone who walks through the door and then try to provide whatever programs or services are sought – from remedial English and math to ESL classes for recent immigrants to workforce training and degrees in nursing. (Almost 60 percent of new nurses are trained at community colleges, as are nearly four out of every five firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians.)

The multiple missions of community colleges call for multiple measures of success. Graduation rates shouldn’t be entirely ignored, but they must consider the actual goals of incoming students. A community college that students attend chiefly as a stepping stone to a four-year university – such as Santa Monica College in California – shouldn’t be penalized if students are able to make a successful transition after one year, before receiving an associate degree.

Graduation rates should also be disaggregated by age, race, gender, socioeconomic status and degree- or credential-program so that schools and the students who attend them can better understand where institutions are succeeding or falling short. A community college with a respectable overall graduation rate might still have programs from which virtually no one graduates – and this fact would remain unknown if graduation rates aren’t reported at a more nuanced level.

If graduation rates shouldn’t be the main metric by which we judge whether a community college is succeeding, what should be? Washington Monthly magazine, which has ranked the nation’s top community colleges since 2007, provides some good ideas on how to measure success at two-year institutions. Using data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the Washington Monthly’s rankings zero in on the presence or absence of six factors: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, support for learners and the graduation rate.

Interestingly, the top 50 institutions on Washington Monthly’s list have four-year graduation rates that range from 16 percent (Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico) to 83 percent (Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in North Carolina), so it’s clear that the magazine sees graduation rates as only a small piece of the puzzle. In fact, “active and collaborative learning” together with “student-faculty interaction” count for about three times as much as a given institution’s graduation rate in the Monthly’s rankings.

What other measures of success are there? In addition to looking at graduation and transfer rates, success could be measured by calculating the percentage of students meeting or exceeding their own goals upon enrollment. And surveys of local businesses would reveal whether nearby community colleges are sufficiently preparing students to meet workforce needs.

Success takes many shapes at community colleges, and so measuring it requires a multi-faceted approach.

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Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. Previously, Snider taught high-school English...

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