California’s community college system on Tuesday unveiled Web-based “scorecards” on student performance  at its 112 colleges. The new data tool is user-friendly and often sobering, with graduation, retention and transfer rates for each of the colleges and for the overall system, which enrolls 2.4 million students.
The scorecards include breakdowns by race, ethnicity, gender and age. They also feature more than just simple graduation rates, with measures like the percentage of students who complete 30 credits and data on how students who placed into remedial coursework fared in comparison to students who were prepared to do college work when they enrolled.
For example, about half (49.2 percent) of students across the system earned a degree or certificate or transferred over the six years they were tracked. But 71 percent of those who were prepared for college successfully completed, compared to 41 percent of students who needed remediation.
Also included in the scorecards are retention rates, which are based on the proportion of students who remained enrolled for their first three consecutive terms, and a section on career technical education as well.
System officials cautioned that the results should not be used to weigh colleges against each other. After all, rural campuses like the College of the Siskiyous serve different student populations than does Long Beach City College, an urban institution.
“The system was not designed as a method of ranking institutions,” said Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the community college system.
However, colleges will be scrutinized by how they perform over time on the scorecards, which will be updated each year. And the baseline established for an institution during the most recent academic year, 2011-12, can be compared to data from the previous four years, showing whether colleges are improving or not.
Some students and their families will no doubt use the scorecards, which are available on a central website and on the sites of local colleges. But observers said the primary audiences for the data are college leaders and state policy makers, some of whom have pushed performance-based funding for the two-year system.
“It has already created considerable conversations on our campuses and in our communities,” Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, said in a phone call with reporters. And importantly, Thor said, those are conversations “based on data" rather than anecdotes.
Just the Facts
Experts on higher education data and proponents of the college completion agenda praised the new scorecards, saying they are both meaty and easy to understand.
Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary success strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the community college system had done a good job selecting a handful of the most important measures of completion. And he said he liked the Web tool’s simplicity.
“It’s not trying to spin,” he said, with an approach he described as “here’s the data.”
The academy has long bemoaned the shortcomings of federal graduation rates, which typically focus on first-time, full-time students. Community colleges in particular enroll many students who fail to show up on standard measures, like those featured in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
California’s two-year system, however, deserves credit for advancing that conversation in a productive way, said Nate Johnson, a higher education data expert and a senior consultant for HCM Strategists, a health and education public policy and advocacy firm.
“They’ve actually proposed something different and put it out there,” Johnson said, “rather than just throwing stones at IPEDS.”
The colleges didn’t need to provide much new information for the scorecards, system officials said. Much of it is currently collected under a process  dubbed the Accountability Reporting for the Community Colleges (ARCC), the creation of which the state’s legislature required in 2004.
But the scorecards do include some new information, and plenty of additional ways to disaggregate and analyze it. Several additional layers will be available, system officials said, with some of that information available only to colleges.
Employment figures are not featured in the scorecards. But the system is working on an earnings tracking tool that should be publicly available next month, according to a spokesman, with median annual wages for students two and five years after they enter an academic program.
One data point that several experts praised was the measure of how many students complete 30 credits toward a degree or certificate. Research shows that students are more likely to graduate and earn more in wages if they clear this “momentum point,” according to system officials.
Colleges will be able to use the 30-credit statistic and other, similar measures to identify promising practices that will help more students complete, said Jan Friedel, an associate professor of educational policy at Iowa State University.
Friedel said the scorecards are perhaps the most detailed that a state system makes publicly available.
“They’re at the forefront of the completion agenda,” she said. “I’m impressed.”
The scorecards grew out of a broad series of reforms  to the California community college system. Central to that effort has been a report by a state task force , which recommended several shifts for the colleges, some of them controversial.
For example, the state’s community colleges have long been fiercely protective about their open-door admission policies. But the report has successfully pushed for the two-year institutions to make tough choices about giving priority  to students who are most likely to earn a credential.
The report also called for the creation of scorecards based on bulked-up data sets. The system made good on that request this week.
The release of the scorecards "represents an important step forward in making the colleges more transparent and accountable for institutional and student performance, and hopefully will provide some momentum for other changes to be made at the campus level," said Lande Ajose, associate director of California Competes, a group that has been critical of the colleges' governance.
Amid years of deep budget cuts, California's community colleges were forced to turn away  600,000 students. The task force was created in part to come up with ways for the colleges to cope. The financial crisis has eased a bit for the colleges, thanks largely to a tax hike proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown that voters approved last fall.
Harris has vowed to continue pushing the task force’s recommendations, even if the budget situation continues to improve.
The overarching goal of the scorecards is to “help more students achieve their educational goals on time,” Harris said. And he said the public data will encourage colleges to work harder to improve themselves.
“This level of transparency is in the best interests of the citizens of the state,” said Harris.
Plenty of people are already taking a look at the scorecards. System officials said the site had received 17,000 clicks by Tuesday afternoon.