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The journalist H. L. Mencken is credited with saying that for every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong. I ran across a variation on that last week. In this case, the formulation of the problem was clear, simple and wrong, leading to all manner of terrible answers.

It went like this:

“Hypothetical Community College has a graduation rate of 30 percent. That means that if I go there, I’ll only have a 30 percent chance of graduating.”

No, it very much does not. It does not mean that at all.

I’ll put aside the usual well-founded community college objections to the IPEDS graduation rate, such as that it only counts first-time, full-time students, but the majority of community college students attend part-time. I’ll even leave out the correct and game-changing point that many students transfer prior to graduation and still get the higher degree on time, but those students show up in the community college’s numbers as dropouts. Those objections are true and substantial but peripheral to the student-level question.

Within most individual colleges, some quick disaggregation of data shows that the collegewide graduation rate is not evenly distributed. Some groups of students are likely to beat the rate, while others are likely to lag it.

Students who can afford to attend full-time, for instance, graduate at higher rates than students who have to switch to part-time. That’s especially true if you put a time limit on graduation. Students who come in needing extensive ESL instruction take longer to graduate. They can and do finish, but it takes longer because they’re doing more. A student who graduates in more than “normative” time counts as a dropout, maddeningly. And students who come in with transfer credits—who tend to graduate at high rates—are disqualified for not being “first time.”

None of this is to deny that colleges can, and do, things to improve student success rates. Longtime readers have seen me mention plenty of them. But I’d be suspicious, if not shocked, to see a community college of any size attain an on-time graduation rate of 95 percent. That’s possible at some super-selective places that provide housing and screen out anyone without a track record of being good at school, but at an open-admissions institution, it’s not realistic. Students with complicated lives sometimes take longer. There shouldn’t be any shame in that.

A student who is determined to graduate on time, who is able to attend full-time and not work too many hours per week for pay, has a much higher chance of graduating than the overall institutional rate. I’d hate to see capable students steered away from affordable institutions out of a misplaced fear of not finishing.

If we really want to improve success rates, we need to do it across all institutional types. That means funding all institutional types at levels that allow them to provide the necessary services or supports—such as help with food, housing and transportation—to give students a fighting chance. It requires defining success in ways that reflect actual student behavior and intentions, as well; the student who only ever intended to do a year at the CC before transferring, and who then gets a four-year degree on time, should not show up as a dropout. The student got what they came for; if the measures don’t reflect that, then they’re inaccurate measures. Something like the Voluntary Framework for Accountability comes much closer to reality, but it’s largely absent from policy discussions. That needs to change.

I understand the appeal of a single number with a seemingly transparent meaning. But it gets reality wrong in ways that hurt both students and the institutions that serve them. Clear and simple are nice, but accurate is even better.

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