Graduation rates

High graduation rates for community college transfers

Most community college students who transfer to a four-year institution make it to graduation, new research finds, particularly if they get an associate degree before transferring.

Better measures of college performance

As policymakers clamor to hold colleges accountable, new Gates-sponsored research tries to establish fair rules for measuring institutional performance.

Report finds football players graduate at rates lower than full-time student peers

An alternative method of measuring athletes' graduation rates shows football players lag behind their full-time, non-athlete peers in most conferences, with black athletes in many cases faring especially poorly.

Essay calls for inclusion of non-academic skills in college readiness efforts

Improving college and career readiness among our high school students is one of the great imperatives facing our nation. To meet this challenge, educators, policymakers and business leaders are working to increase students’ academic skills through a host of national and state initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards.  

While it goes without question that students need strong academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education, our research indicates that “college readiness” must be more broadly conceived. In a recent study, we interviewed almost 200 community college faculty, staff and students. These interviews made abundantly clear that certain non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes are equally germane to college success. 

Non-academic college readiness is only peripherally discussed by practitioners and policymakers. It remains poorly articulated, leaving new college students unclear about the expectations they will face, and high school and college practitioners unable to help them truly prepare. As educators aim to make the academic skills needed for college readiness clear and measurable, they must do the same for non-academic skills.

In our recent research, we identified four specific areas -- academic habits, cultural know-how, the ability to balance school and other demands and engaging in help-seeking -- in which college faculty had clear expectations of their students. These expectations differed substantively from those in high school, and while meeting them was critical to college success, they remained largely unspoken.

Many college instructors think they already clearly articulate their expectations to students, but our research indicates that behavioral expectations must be made far more explicit and precise. As one student we spoke to -- who dropped out after her second semester -- told us: “they didn’t tell me what to expect, so I didn’t know what to do!”  Overall, the evidence points to the need for active, scaffolded guidance so that students can develop the behaviors and strategies exhibited by effective college students.

Take “studying,” for example. College instructors often tell students they must “study hard” for their class. But in high school, studying usually entails completing nightly homework, taking biweekly tests, and completing short-term assignments. College “studying,” in contrast, means completing work independently -- even if the teacher doesn’t collect or grade it. It means reviewing a syllabus at the beginning of a course, developing a plan to complete long-term projects and studying large amounts of material for infrequent exams.

Students who meet the college expectation of studying hard use strategies such as breaking their syllabus into small chunks of material to learn at regularly scheduled intervals, and taking notes in the margins of their textbooks while reading. Instructors should explain these successful behaviors to students on the first day of class, and regularly remind them of these and other important skills, such as recognizing when they need help, and asking for assistance rather than waiting for it to be offered.

To make their expectations sufficiently explicit and actionable, instructors will have to first spend time reflecting upon the non-academic behaviors and skills they expect of their students. Once they have identified their own expectations, instructors can make these clear to students and develop assignments that will help students learn to employ the necessary behaviors. For example, when an instructor asks students to “come to class prepared,” what does she mean? If she means coming to class having completed a reading and being prepared to participate in discussions about it, she can include this expectation in the syllabus, explain it to students from the first day of class, and assign students to write out three questions or observations about the reading to discuss each week.

Institutions can formalize this process by asking entire departments or disciplines to similarly identify and explicate the unspoken expectations to which students are held. Conversations about behavioral expectations could be conducted as part of program review, professional development or the creation of learning outcomes. Importantly, institutions must then make these newly identified non-academic expectations clear to current and future students -- by embedding them into course syllabi and structuring orientation, outreach activities and success courses around them.

Colleges should also work with high schools and state education policymakers to ensure that these non-academic readiness standards are incorporated into ongoing local and state college readiness initiatives. Senior-year transition courses, college-high school partnership programs and Common Core implementation are all avenues through which non-academic collegiate expectations can be clearly communicated to students, and successful skills and behaviors can be taught.

The bottom line is that educators must stop blaming students for breaking rules that they do not know exist. Until students are told the concrete ways college and high school are different, and provided strategies for how they might meet new expectations, there is a danger that all the focus on academic readiness will not lead to real change in students’ postsecondary achievement.

Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork
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Melinda Mechur Karp is senior research associate and Rachel Hare Bork is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Data show key role for community colleges in 4-year degree production

Study shows that 45 percent of bachelor's degree recipients studied at two-year institutions first -- as many as three-quarters in some states.

Essay on how community colleges can do better

In the spotlight more than ever before, community colleges are increasingly being asked to do more with less -- facing greater pressure to produce more college graduates at the same time that state funding is being reduced.

For example, Arizona's state spending on community colleges in fiscal 2013 dropped 7 percent, from $71 million to about $66 million, in spite of a 7 percent increase in community college enrollment. In Virginia, the average state funding per student at community colleges fell 36 percent, from $4,602 to $2,946, between 2006 and 2011. And, in the last four years, demand for community college education in California has increased while the budgets have been cut by 12 percent. Many institutions nationwide cite such hurdles to justify three-year graduation rates dipping as low as 15 percent, saying it’s impossible to do better. But that’s not true.

Even in the face of all the challenges, there are examples of community colleges doing a superb job achieving student success at scale on campuses across the country. The sector is inventing programs that show promising results, yet community colleges are still being recognized more for their challenges than their successes. What community colleges need is a better sense of where to look for examples of excellence in the sector in order to raise the bar, not only for college completion, but also for student learning outcomes and employment after college.

In July, the Aspen Institute published data that offer some pointers on where to look for solutions. Performance and improvement metrics were released that detail which 120 community colleges are doing best -- and improving the most -- in terms of graduation rates, retention rates and degrees awarded, for all students and for minority populations that have historically performed at lower levels. The data are used to determine the top U.S. community colleges that are eligible for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The data set Aspen released, which is based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), does not tell the whole story, but it tells an important one. It shows community colleges across the country what levels of student success are possible, as well as some places they ought to look to as models. For example, the data show that:

  • Walla Walla Community College (Wash.) boasts a 54 percent three-year graduation and transfer rate, well above the national average of 40 percent.
  • Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 48 percent for Hispanic students, which make up over 30 percent of its student body.
  • Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 76 percent, even though over 40 percent of its students are low-income enough to be receiving Pell grants.

Not every example on this list of 120 is relevant to every community college. But every two-year college in the country can find examples in the Aspen data set of a place that looks a lot like they do, yet is achieving higher levels of student graduation, or retention, or degrees awarded, or minority student success. They can then work to figure out what those colleges are doing that allowed them to be so successful and examine the programs that are working well -- helping students learn, complete programs and obtain degrees. 

For example, even after consecutive years of budget cuts in California, Santa Barbara City College has maintained an excellent range of programs to improve student success, including an accelerated track that helps speed the neediest students through developmental math and an exceptional writing center that prepares students for the rigors of upper-division classes if and when they transfer to a four-year college. Walla Walla Community College has developed very strong systems for advising students to ensure that they complete degrees, employing quarterly advising by case managers and excellent online tools to monitor progress towards credentials with strong labor market value. Lake Area Technical Institute also prevents students from slipping through the cracks by enrolling all students in cohort-based, block-scheduled programs, where students progress together through each semester knowing exactly what courses, degree and career lie ahead.

Valencia College, the winner of the first Aspen Prize in 2011, achieved its 51 percent three-year graduation rate with a highly diverse student population – 46 percent of its students are Hispanic or African-American. While many significant and scaled initiatives have contributed to Valencia’s exceptional student outcomes, the college’s success is built in substantial part on a culture of learning among professors and staff, fueled by a completely revamped tenure process that rewards professors for improving their teaching.

These institutions, as well as the others on the list of 120, have awakened to the realities that we cannot continue to deliver higher education in the same way we always have in this country and expect better student outcomes. And, community college outcomes need to improve. The national full-time graduation rate of 28 percent is unacceptably low, and student success rates remain under 40 percent even if you count students who transfer to a four-year college without ever completing community college. And, as has been widely reported, graduation rates are even lower for the large number students who enter community college needing remedial education.

But understanding the need to improve is only the first step. By examining the quantitative outcomes of the 120 colleges on this list, all community colleges should be able to understand that much higher levels of student success are possible. Aspen will help over the coming year by releasing toolkits and providing briefings about what is happening at the 10 finalist community colleges vying for the 2013 prize -- which were just announced. Our hope is that increasing amounts of attention will be paid to these exemplars of student success, and that more and more people will recognize them as excellent, deserving of our investments and places that offer institution-wide solutions to the challenges community colleges face.

Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

Community college beats no college on path to 4-year degree, study finds

The alternative to community college for most students is typically no college, finds study that pushes back against "undermatching" warnings about two-year path.

Kelly and Schneider on the completion agenda

A new book of essays takes stock of where "completion agenda" stands. The volume's editors talk about key lessons from the still nascent college completion push.

Report on employment of college grads is public relations, not research (essay)

Our problem with the new report The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm, on the employment of university graduates since the start of the Great Recession, begins even before the first word of text. In the first paragraph of the acknowledgments, speaking of those who financed the study, the Lumina and Gates Foundations, the authors -- Anthony Carnevale and associates at Georgetown University -- observe, "We are honored to be partners in the mission of promoting postsecondary access and completion for all Americans."

Thus this report is about promoting a mission, a policy position, not about achieving a dispassionate, objective and complete analysis of the evidence. It is thus better viewed as a piece of PR, agitprop musings as it were, not a serious academic study.  Certainly, we doubt any peer-reviewed reputable academic journal in economics would touch this study in its current form.

This brings up a bigger problem: isn't there an inherent, huge conflict of interest in university researchers issuing reports favoring positions that are in their own self-interest? Is it not true that Georgetown and other universities gain marketing advantages (and maybe higher tuition fees) by promoting the idea that “it pays to go to college”? The subjective bias is further revealed as the authors at the very beginning decry "attacks" by higher education "cost-cutters,” as if trying to improve efficiency in a low productivity industry is somehow bad.

Getting to the evidence, the Georgetown team is probably correct, that, on average, college graduates fared better in labor markets in the Great Recession and its slow recovery than did those with lesser degrees or diplomas. But where are the control variables accounting for the fact that college graduates are, on average, brighter, more disciplined, and more ambitious than those with less education? A typical high school graduate is a less desirable employee than a typical college graduate for reasons independent of the formal postsecondary education acquired.

Moreover, while the members of the Carnevale team agree that those working only part-time jobs are not truly “employed,” they draw no such distinction with those trained for relatively highly skilled work now doing menial labor. College biology graduates driving taxi cabs are considered fully employed by the definitions that are used. Yet in a real economic sense, they are underemployed or mal-employed, and their human capital utilization is well below what the expectations of both the worker and arguably society as a whole.

“Employment” is not in any meaningful economic context a simple binary variable like pregnancy (you are, or you are not), but a continuum reflecting variations in both hours worked and the meaningfulness of the labor performed. Our guess, based on looking at other labor market data, is that “human capital utilization” among college graduates has fallen a fair amount more than “employment” in recent years, as college graduates increasingly take low-paying (reflecting low productivity) jobs. According to the most recent report by a Northeastern University professor for the Associated Press, using Current Population Survey data, roughly 53 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, instead of the 8 percent reported in the Carnevale report.

All of this suggests that data are subject to an altogether different interpretation than used by the Georgetown team. Consider, for example, the argument advanced by the Georgetown group that "Even in traditionally blue-collar industries, better educated workers fared better." To us, that basically says overqualified people with college degrees appear to be crowding out others in the market for low-skilled jobs, showing that the "underemployment" problem amongst college graduates is considerable.

Similarly, the authors are lumping together those with a high school diploma and those with less than a high school diploma in the statistical comparisons -- so the analysis differs from the traditional comparisons of high school- and college-educated individuals.

Those who did not graduate from high school make up 24 percent of the sample for the “High school or less” category and 33 percent of the unemployed according to the May 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.  Those who attained only a high school diploma are much more likely to still have a job (8 percent unemployment) than are those with less than a high school education (13 percent unemployment).

But what is worse, the authors fail to seriously do what even undergraduate economics students writing papers would be expected to do -- relate costs to benefits. Suppose, even after controlling for everything under the sun, college graduates have a clear employment security advantage during turbulent economic times -- a conclusion that we acknowledge is plausible, maybe even expected, if colleges do what they claim to do.

Is the value of that job security advantage big enough to offset the costs of college attendance, where "costs" include not only cash outlays by students, and the income foregone while studying rather than working, but also the total cost to society from the various government subsidies associated with a college education, and the high risks related to the fact that a majority of college students either do not graduate at all, or fail to do so in the advertised (four-year) time needed to complete the degree?

All of that aside, however -- a huge "aside" -- there are hints in the data that the college advantage is becoming frayed. Look, for example, at Figure 2 in the executive summary, which seems to show that the college degree earnings advantage (to us a vastly overused and flawed statistic) peaked around 2005 or so and has declined modestly since. From 2008 and 2010, Census Bureau data show real earnings fell a good deal for full-time male college-educated workers, unlike, for example, those with less than a high school education. On September 7 the Census Bureau will release 2011 data which will give further indication whether the most recent data are the beginning of a longer-term trend.

Our reading of the evidence is that truly dispassionate examination of the data by those without any vested interest in the conclusions, controlling for other factors involved in determining unemployment and earnings, might well yield a radically different conclusion than found in this public relations effort of Tony Carnevale and his team at Georgetown. The assumptions of this report – that those with little education dramatically improve their job security by deciding to go to college -- are certainly not adequately demonstrated.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Daniel Garrett is an honors undergraduate economics major at Ohio University.

Podcast discussion on value of a college degree

In interview, Anthony Carnevale and Lumina Foundation's Jamie Merisotis assess the value of college degree, the emergence of new credentials, and whether rebounding male enrollments will last.


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