• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Barack Obama Is a College Graduate

An anecdote to match the data.


May 10, 2016

Barack Obama didn’t show up in IPEDS statistics as a college graduate. That’s because he transferred before graduating. I’d say he’s done okay for himself.

I love the #CountAllStudents campaign. It’s an effort to share anecdotes of students who attended both community college and a four-year college, eventually graduating from the latter, but showing up in the official numbers of neither. Students who fit that profile are far more common than most people realize, and missing them can lead to terrible policy decisions.

Normally I’d object to something entirely anecdotal, on the grounds that it’s, well, entirely anecdotal. But the statistics have been out there for a while, and people keep ignoring them. Maybe anecdotes will help the numbers break through.

For example, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, roughly 46 percent of bachelor’s degree grads in America in the last ten years have significant numbers of credits from community colleges; 65 percent of those have at least three semesters.

For context, 46 percent is almost exactly the percentage of undergrads in America who are enrolled at a community college at any given time.

In other words, the percentage of undergrads at cc’s and the percentage of bachelor’s grads with significant cc credits are almost exactly the same.  

That report came out over a year ago. The political discourse barely noticed.

If community colleges were actually the barriers to success that some folks insinuate, I’d expect to see their representation among bachelor’s degree grads to be much lower than it is.  

The #CountAllStudents campaign gives both names and stories to explain what looks like a contradiction. If you take “too long” to graduate -- meaning more than 150 percent of “normative” time -- you won’t show up in grad rates. If you transfer prior to completing the associate’s, you won’t show up in either school’s grad rate.  If you reverse transfer prior to completing the associate’s, you won’t show up in the grad rate. But in every case, you will show up in that population-level number of total college graduates.

The population-level number gives a much truer picture of the performance of the sector as a whole, though it doesn’t do as much to measure the performance of any given school. That’s because people move. Hampshire County, Massachusetts doesn’t have a community college in it, but it has people with associate’s degrees. They came from somewhere. Hunterdon County, New Jersey is the same way (though much more expensive). And even in places that have community colleges, people don’t necessarily live where they went to school. If the point of tracking these statistics is to isolate a given institution, it may not work well. But as a snapshot of the sector as a whole, it captures a truth that’s too easily lost when you just look at school-by-school grad rates.

If anecdotes help make the point more effectively, bring ‘em on. Barack Obama is a college graduate, whether he shows up in any school’s numbers or not.



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