• 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.

Title

Ruling Out Success

Or, how to stack a study.

April 14, 2022

A few days ago, an article with the provocative title “Is Community College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis,” by Preston Cooper, made the rounds on Twitter. With a title like that, I couldn’t resist.

I should have resisted.

It constructs measures to rule out success, then presents a lack of success as a valid research finding. After declaring that students who receive associate degrees in liberal arts fields typically wind up “underwater,” it offers this methodological note:

“Associate degrees are also sometimes viewed as a stepping-stone to the bachelor’s degree. It is common advice for students to complete the first two years of their education at an inexpensive community college and then transfer to a four-year school. The ROI estimates in this report, however, consider returns on the associate degree alone. In other words, the calculations assume that students earn an associate degree but don’t continue their education further.”

The liberal arts associate degree is intended to serve as a vertical transfer degree; the entire point is to serve as the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program. This study simply ignores students who used the degree as intended, instead generalizing from those who didn’t. When it filters out the students who succeeded, unsurprisingly, it’s left with dispiriting results. But that’s true of literally any program. As a metric it misses the point so completely that I have to wonder if the study was conducted in good faith.

Cooper published an entire separate article detailing the methodology. It’s even worse. In Cooper’s own words:

“Note that this methodology considers returns on the associate degree or certificate only. If a student uses her sub-baccalaureate credential as a stepping-stone for a bachelor’s degree, the returns to that higher degree are not reflected in the estimates here.”

Nearly half of the bachelor’s degree holders in the U.S. have significant community college credits. None of that counts in this study. Every success those students accrue gets attributed to the four-year school; the community college simply fades from view.

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Cooper further notes that students who earned a degree prior to age 23 are not included in the study. These would be most traditional-aged students, who are also the likeliest to take the liberal arts associate degree. The study also excludes anyone still in school, which would be the student who used the liberal arts degree right out of high school to transfer upward to a bachelor’s, and then went on to law, medical or graduate school. (To be fair, they’d be excluded anyway once they got the bachelor’s degree.) We have those alums, and they’re generally doing quite well. But they’re excluded from the study.

The study has a host of other flaws. It assumes, incorrectly, that most community college students finish in two years. Our three-year graduation rate is far higher than our two-year graduation rate, simply because so many students attend part-time and/or have stopouts for economic or family reasons. It also looks most closely at the first two years after college. The earning curve in many of the fields favored by liberal arts grads tends to start lower and increase faster than the earning curve for many technical fields; if you only look at the first couple of years out, you miss that.

In a more perfect world, none of this would matter. We’d understand that education is public infrastructure, undergirding a successful economy and a successful democracy. The “accountability” we’d look for would be to hold legislators accountable for providing adequate resources to public colleges and universities to fulfill their missions at a level worthy of their students. But in this world, cheap-shot headlines become ammunition to be used against the institutions that serve those who most need serving.

The study should be easy enough to fix. Count the students who go on to get bachelor’s degrees (and higher). Look at their incomes 10 and 20 years out. Heck, count students who graduate before age 23! I graduated college before age 23, and I like to think I count.

The vertical-transfer function—60 credits at a community college, followed by 60 more for the bachelor’s—is a crucial part of the community college mission. It offers access to students who otherwise wouldn’t have it. And it works; if it didn’t, how would we explain nearly half of all of the bachelor’s degree holders in the U.S. having significant community college credits? Yes, there are issues with four-year schools being unreasonably stingy in accepting transfer credits in some cases; by all means, let’s work on those. But denigrating access institutions by defining away their most successful graduates? No, thank you.

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Matt Reed

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