• 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.


Dropouts, Grads, and Terrible Counting

Numbers that need attention.

March 26, 2015

Ashley Smith’s IHE story Thursday got few comments and drew little notice, but it should have made national headlines. It gives the lie to a great many tales being told about community colleges.

As her story noted, a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 46 percent of bachelor's degree graduates have at least some community college credits in their background, and that 65 percent of those who do have at least three semesters of community college under their belts.

In that light, suddenly the doom and gloom about community college graduation rates becomes a little harder to sustain.

At a really basic level, this is about definitions. A student who does a year at a cc and then transfers for the bachelor's shows up in our stats as a dropout, even if she successfully completes the bachelor's in four years. I don't see a rational purpose behind counting that student as a dropout, but them's the rules. That student would show up in the 46 percent of bachelor's grads with cc experience, but would show up in our numbers as a dropout. There's the disconnect.

The disconnect gets larger when you account for reverse transfers (four-year to two-year), who also don't show up in our graduation rates, even if they graduate. Graduation rates only count "first-time, full-time, degree-seeking" students.  By definition, a transfer student is not first-time, so she's excluded from the grad rate.

Students who "don't count" in the rate are the vast majority here. (On my own campus, they're 83 percent of the students. That strains the definition of 'outlier.') But they do count when you look at the total number of BA holders.  

Within the community college world, the issues with IPEDS are well-known. But the outside world still largely thinks that something like a "graduation rate" is clear and unproblematic.  

The comments to the story raised a valid question about the "undermatching" hypothesis.  "Undermatching" is the theory, based on a statistical fallacy, that high-achieving students are less likely to succeed at colleges with lower graduation rates.  Essentially, it assumes that the lower class has cooties, and that the cooties are contagious.

It's based on bad math. If you disaggregate the institutional grad rate, you see quickly that it varies widely by student demographics. That's a major issue in itself, given the racial and economic divides in our society, but you really can't understand the aggregate rate without knowing that.  

The next step is connecting the dots between this study and the student loan crisis. Do BA grads with significant community college experience have lower debt, on average? (I'm guessing they do, but I haven't seen proof either way.) If so, maybe it's time to shift the discussion more dramatically...


Back to Top