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Measuring Community College Student Success: Beyond Traditional Completion Rates

Measuring Community College Student Success: Beyond Traditional Completion Rates
As students, government officials and administrators become increasingly concerned with performance, new ways to look at academic progress need to be devised.

With more than 1100 institutions enrolling over 10 million students nationwide, community colleges constitute the largest postsecondary education sector in the country. Not only do community college students comprise more than 40 percent of all undergraduate students, a recent national survey found that 62 percent of all undergraduates reported that they had enrolled in a community college at some point during their education career. These numbers illustrate both the scope of community college enrollment and the challenge community colleges face in measuring completion and success. Not all students enroll to earn a degree.

With unprecedented attention on community colleges and more than $2 billion in recent federal grants invested to enable hundreds of schools to develop targeted work training programs, the need has never been greater to more accurately define and track community college student progress, completion and entry into the workforce. Ideally measures should include all students, in a time frame longer than the three years typically used to calculate two-year college graduation rates.

In response to this need, my firm (RTI International, a non-profit research institute) launched The Completion Arch, a free web tool and resource designed to provide a national and state-level view of how well community college students are progressing toward completion and entering the workforce. More than 35 metrics, defined and vetted by researchers and used by numerous initiatives working to increase college completion, track students from the time they enroll to their entry into the workforce. A key motivation for The Completion Arch was to provide a connection across the major completion initiatives, all of which place a premium on collecting actionable data.

Case Study: How The Completion Arch Can Give a Complete View of Student Success

An example of how The Completion Arch provides a more comprehensive view of student success can be seen by comparing two of the completion indicators included in the tool: three-year graduation rate and six-year longitudinal completion rate. The latest nationwide three-year graduation rate reported by Department of Education through IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) is 22 percent—just over one-fifth of community college students had earned a vocational certificate or associate’s degree in three years.

However, this rate is based on a small fraction of community college students who are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking and enrolled in the fall. If we look at a metric that includes all first-time students and extends the time frame to six years across all institutions they attend to include transfer students, an additional 12 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree and 20 percent are still enrolled, many working toward a degree. So using this six-year longitudinal measure of persistence, about one half of community college students have completed a degree or are still enrolled after six years, arguably a more realistic portrait of the community college student experience. It allows for part-time attendance, spring enrollment, transfer, and three additional years to complete. The Completion Arch presents both the IPEDS graduation rates and six-year completion rates and explains the difference between them by clearly presenting what is measured (the numerator) and who is counted (the denominator), and why it is important.

It’s About More Than Completion

Perhaps more important than the extended view of completion are the many interim milestones of progress that shed light on the large segment of students who don’t complete and the more than 60 percent who enroll unprepared for college coursework in one or more subjects. Did they complete their first developmental course, a sequence of developmental courses, enroll in and complete a college-level course? These are a few of the more than 500 national and state-level indicators presented in The Completion Arch.

Consider these interim measures:

  • 62 percent of students take at least one developmental education (remedial) course, including 55 percent who take a developmental math class;
  • 44 percent of students complete a gatekeeper (college-level) math course;
  • 80 percent of students earn 12 credits and 61 percent earn 30 credits;

and these productivity measures:

  • The average time it takes community college students to earn their first award is 27 months for vocational certificates, 39 months for associate degrees, and 54 months for bachelor’s degrees.
  • In 2012-13, community colleges conferred 639,359 associate degrees and 458,541 certificates for a total of 1,097,900 awards, or 10.7 credentials per 100 enrolled students.

and these employment outcomes:

  • Six years after starting, 78 percent of community college students were employed at least part time and 62 percent were employed full time.

At the state level:

  • About 89 percent of Tennessee Community College students were employed by the summer following the year they completed their programs.
  • About 77 percent of Illinois Community College students were employed in the first or second quarter after completing a community college program.
  • In California, the median wage of community college nursing graduates was $76,000 two years after completing their RN and $83,000 five years later.

We believe The Completion Arch will help facilitate a national discussion across completion initiatives about which metrics best measure and communicate the progress of students and can help policymakers and the public understand the scope of community college missions and the metrics needed to understand them.

To learn more about The Completion Arch, please click here.