Community Colleges and Graduation Rates

Complaints about federal measures are valid, study finds, but dealing with issues raised by the complaints has little relative impact.
March 22, 2007

A new study on community college graduation rates has a somewhat unusual conclusion: Federal measures of the graduation rates are as bad as critics claim, but when those measures are corrected, colleges' results compared to other institutions don't change very much.

The issue of graduation rates is one that is increasingly important in higher education, as politicians and others seek more ways to gauge colleges' performance and hold them accountable. But as the study notes, community colleges have complained for years that the rates that the federal government uses aren't appropriate for their institutions and lead to simplistic and unfair criticisms. The study was done by scholars at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College, Columbia University.

The study examines the validity of the "Student Right to Know" graduation rates, which all colleges must report under federal law. These rates measure graduation within 150 percent of the standard time for a degree -- six years for a four-year institution and three years for a community college offering associate degrees. The study focused on Florida's 28 community colleges, in part because Florida's state databases include much more information than what goes into the federal measure -- so the researchers could compare more sophisticated analyses to those produced by the federal methodology.

The first part of the report walks through the major criticisms made of the federal rate: that it doesn't take into account the transfer mission of community colleges, that its time period is too short to fairly track non-traditional age students, that it doesn't include part-time students, that definitions are inconsistent, and so forth. By and large, the study finds the criticisms valid and points to ways that the federal definition shortchanges community colleges and implies that they have very low graduation rates, which in some cases isn't true and in other cases (where students are transferring) may not be relevant.

"Simply saying that the graduation rate for a particular community college is 25 percent provides very little useful information to anyone," the report says. And the report concludes that reporting these rates can be dangerous to community colleges in terms of public perceptions, since so many people unfamiliar with community colleges assume all colleges are educating traditional undergraduates who have the ability and means to finish a bachelor's degree in four years.

But the scholars also used Florida's data to construct alternative graduation rates -- avoiding some of the flaws identified in the federal system. For example, the scholars counted part-time students and tracked students over longer time periods. Likewise, the study examined various ways that transfer students could be counted. Then the researchers compared the rates using the federal system with the more sophisticated approach. And they found that the rankings don't change significantly.

As a result, the researchers conclude that however flawed the federal data are for community colleges, they may still represent "a reasonable first approximation of relative college performance."

The report ends by endorsing the creation of a national "student unit record" system -- which would track students from institution to institution and across state lines. With such a system, analysis like that done in Florida could be done elsewhere. While many community colleges -- not to mention key members of the Bush administration -- favor that concept, it has been opposed by many student groups and private colleges, who fear that it would result in a huge loss of privacy rights.


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