Success by Another Name

Federal panel recommends new ways to measure performance of community colleges.
September 7, 2011

WASHINGTON – A committee tasked by the Education Department with strengthening how the government measures the success of community colleges last week issued its draft report of recommendations, which will be discussed here today at the committee's final meeting.

The 20-page report from the Committee on Measures of Student Success calls for community colleges and states to collect and disclose more information about graduation rates, student learning and employment. This reporting should include more voluntarily released data, the committee said, as well as more thorough compliance with current federal disclosure requirements.

“Measures of student success need to more accurately reflect the comprehensive mission of two-year institutions and the diversity of students that these institutions serve,” the report said. “For example, current graduation rates do not adequately reflect these institutions’ multiple missions and diverse populations.”

Key recommendations include a call for part-time, degree-seeking students at community colleges to be counted toward federally reported graduation and transfer rates (they currently are not), and for more precise counting of students who transfer out of community colleges, such as lateral transfers to other two-year institutions. The current federal rate counts only first-time, full-time students -- a population that excludes the majority of students at many community colleges and significant numbers of students at most community colleges.

Another recommendation of the panel is that the federal definition take better account of remedial students.

The 14-member panel, which includes community college leaders and independent higher education policy experts, had internal disagreements as it worked to finish the report in previous meetings, which were open to the public. Those debates reflected broader discussions over measuring quality at community colleges, with committee members from colleges pushing back on what they see as burdensome reporting requirements while policy researchers called for more complete data.

The report gives a nod to worries about more red tape, noting that the “need for more information must be balanced by an understanding of the potential administrative and financial burdens” of collecting such data. And in many instances the report calls for the Education Department to lend a helping hand or do most of the work itself.

For example, the committee says the department should offer technical support to community colleges to help them meet disclosure requirements. It should also seek improved coordination between existing national and state databases to improve a “fragmented, incomplete picture of student success.”

Comparable Measures

Community colleges face tremendous political pressure to increase their graduation rates and better measure academic quality, most notably from the Obama administration and the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations. The colleges are also struggling with tight state budgets and, at most campuses, increasing enrollments.

The national graduation rate of community colleges, using current federal definitions, is 32 percent. But while community colleges are often criticized for this low number, the report said it is also a misleading, incomplete measure that does not account for the complex flow of students into and out of institutions.

The committee’s recommendations seek to create a fuller, more accurate view of graduation rates. That requires building upon data that are already reported by community colleges, according to the report, and the development of new and alternative methods of measuring student success.

Joshua Wyner of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, which is creating a list of what it considers top community colleges, praised the committee’s efforts. “We need comparable measures of student success to understand what is working on community college campuses,” Wyner said.

The institute has worked extensively with graduation rates and other data in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Wyner said the information from community colleges in the system can be “spotty,” with many institutions not entering accurate data about transfer rates. Better self-reporting is needed, Wyner said, and the committee’s report will help better define success at community colleges.

“We’ve had so little conversation about that in concrete ways,” he says.


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