Student Success Measurements Must Be Centered on Student NeedsJoianne Smith | President, Oakton Community College
Community colleges offer convenient access to an affordable education that revolves around student schedules and finances, making them a popular option for many. Demand for education delivered by these institutions is growing; from 2000-2010, the number of students enrolled at community colleges across the country has increased 26 percent from 5.7 million to 7.2 million students.
Because they serve the local communities in which they are located, community colleges must serve students with varied life circumstances. According to the Center for American Progress, the overwhelming majority of students must work, and half of community college students work full time. Community colleges offer the convenience of evening and online classes to fit their needs.
Many students need remedial study before getting into their area of focus. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that more than 40 percent of all students who attend community college enroll in at least one developmental class, often more.
Community colleges serve traditional college-age students preparing to transfer to a four-year institution, provide a low-cost alternative for general education courses required by these institutions and provide access for older students making career shifts. Many attend community colleges for reasons other than degree completion, and their specific goals should be taken into consideration. Community colleges welcome and accommodate all of these students and more.
However, these same attributes that draw people to community colleges also affect performance statistics. According to NCES, only 13 percent of community college students earn a degree in two years. That number jumps to 22 percent after three years and 28 percent after four years.
At Oakton Community College, the graduation rate is about 17 percent within three years according to Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, which is below the national average. Oakton is working hard to bolster support services to improve completion rates for students. Areas of focus include providing student support services in the areas of alignment of curriculum with K-12 partners, developmental education, retention and support services, financial literacy, workforce development and career pathways.
While concerning, this data point does not tell the whole story. Oakton is among the national leaders in three-year transfer rates for full-time, first-time students. The combination of completion and transfer rates for this group is 54 percent—more than three times higher than the graduation rate alone.
Further, not all students are included in IPEDS data. Students who have already attended another postsecondary institution and those who began their studies on a part-time basis are not included in these rates. At Oakton, only 29 percent of students were counted among full-time, first-time students in 2014. That means that more than two thirds of students are not counted for this statistic.
Another area of concern for community colleges is their exclusion from the federal government’s College Scorecard. Seventeen percent of all degree-granting community colleges are not included in the scorecard. That’s nearly one in five colleges. If an institution awarded more certificates than degrees, then it is not labeled as having “predominantly awarded two-year or four-year degrees” and is therefore excluded from the list.
Largely due to their community-serving mission, community colleges innovating with certificates and stackable credentials are most profoundly affected. This is a problem.
So what is the best way to measure community colleges? Here are some suggestions:
- Assess the success of students based upon their goal at the time of application, rather than assuming that all students seek to earn a degree.
- Abandon the first-time, full-time cohort and measure the groups not currently measured, including those that enter as transfers from other institutions and those entering as part-time students.
- Track students longer than three or four years, using six-year reporting to allow for students entering and enrolling with remedial courses and also recognizing life circumstances. This would count many graduates ignored by the current federal methodology and would be consistent with American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) accountability practices.
- Use transfer as an indicator of success, as many community college students successfully transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree without first earning a two-year credential.
- Consider certificate earners as completers, as many career and technical education students are enrolled in certificate programs that lead to gainful employment.
- Include colleges that provide students the opportunity to earn credentials such as certificates in the College Scorecard to validate students’ efforts to better their lives as they balance work and college and earn higher compensation in the process.
A Student Achievement Measure (SAM) proposed in 2013 would go a long way in accomplishing these goals. For community college associate and certificate programs, SAM would examine data on:
- Full‐time students attending the reporting institution for the first time (including new and transfer students).
- Part‐time students attending the reporting institution for the first time (including new students and transfers from other institutions).
For each of these groups, the SAM would record these students into the following categories:
- Graduated from the reporting institution.
- Are still enrolled at the reporting institution.
- Transferred to one or more subsequent institutions.
- Have unknown transfer, current enrollment or graduation status.
SAM is endorsed by the AACC, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land‐Grant Universities and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
By instituting reforms such as those suggested, student success measurements would more accurately reflect the role community colleges play in the regions they serve and would allow colleges to better serve students’ needs based on their specific education goals, rather than a federal formula.