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college graduation rates
Thomas Bailey

The U.S. Department of Education released an action plan last week to improve how we measure the success of postsecondary students and institutions. The plan is sure to be met with enthusiasm by community-college leaders across the country.

The plan makes recommendations on how to better evaluate and report on community-college performance, many of which came from the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success (CMSS), which I chaired.

Overall, the plan represents a significant improvement over the current system.

Historically, the chief available measure of an institution’s success was its graduation rate. Presumably, the higher the rate, the better the institution. Until now, the graduation rate for community colleges has been based on the proportion of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who graduate within three or four years of enrolling.

For many reasons, though, this rate has presented an incomplete and distorted picture of community college success. The majority of community-college students attend part-time, and many transfer in from other colleges. Both of these sizeable populations have been excluded in traditional graduation rate calculations. In addition, many students transfer to four-year colleges without first obtaining a community-college credential—and current measures make it appear as if these students haven’t been successful.

The new approach will provide a more complete and accurate measure of community college success by including part-time students, as well as improving the reporting of transfer students and developing methods to measure the success of those who transfer in from other colleges. At a time in which postsecondary institutions are being held increasingly accountable for student outcomes, these are important changes.

The plan will clarify the meaning of “degree-seeking,” a poorly defined term that is nevertheless crucial to calculating graduation rates. It will also improve the collection and analysis of data on students who receive federal financial aid, allowing for a better understanding of this multi-billion-dollar federal investment.

Furthermore, the plan calls for improved state longitudinal data systems, and better communication about collecting and disseminating data on student success.

However, there are some CMSS recommendations that did not find their way into the plan, or that are mentioned with too little specificity.

Take, for example, the idea of publishing an “institutional graduation rate” (as defined in the original Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act of 1990). This rate would include, in a single measure of completion, both students who have graduated and those who have transferred without graduating.

The CMSS recommended publishing this rate, but also suggested that it be disaggregated so as to differentiate between students who transfer and those who complete a credential. Transfer is a key outcome for community-college students, but it is not the same thing as graduating. Our understanding of institutional performance would be strengthened if we could clearly distinguish between the two outcomes, transferring and graduating.

The Department of Education also rejected the CMSS’s suggestion that colleges disaggregate outcomes for community-college students who are deemed ill-prepared for college-level work and are therefore assigned to remedial education. While this might be difficult for colleges to do, it is important—not least because so many students fall into this category. The action plan should recognize the need to develop better information about the success of these students.

Unfortunately, even with the more refined measurements laid out in the action plan, graduation rates reported by colleges will continue to be disappointing and inadequate. It will be a serious challenge for colleges to report their transfer data accurately.

Students, parents, policymakers, educators and researchers still have questions about outcomes—graduation, transfer, employment—based on gender, race and ethnicity, part-time status and financial aid received. The graduation rates reported in the current and proposed systems are unlikely ever to be disaggregated enough to address all of these legitimate concerns.

For this reason, the CMSS recommended the development of a data system that would allow us to track individual students over time as they move around the country and among institutions. This recommendation is controversial. The latest reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act barred the federal government from developing such a system, and it is not included in the new action plan. But absent a system of this kind, our measures of success will remain frustratingly incomplete.

Thomas Bailey is the George and Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center, along with the National Center for Postsecondary Research and the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment.

A version of this op-ed appeared on the College, Inc. blog of The Washington Post on April 19, 2012. Further reproduction is not allowed.

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