Measuring Completion

November 30, 2011

WASHINGTON -- After more than a year of study, a federal committee is urging the Education Department to change how it tracks and evaluates graduation rates and other measures of success for students at community colleges.

One of the recommendations, if endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, would create a combined “graduation and transfer” rate that includes students who graduate from a two-year college as well as those who do not graduate but do go on to a four-year institution. That move would be a victory for community colleges, who have argued that counting only those students who earn degrees makes community colleges appear less successful than they really are.

The report, from the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success, was more than a year in the making. It addresses a variety of issues that can make measuring student completion rates at community colleges difficult, providing guidelines on collecting data on students who transfer, part-time students, students who need remedial classes, and other groups.

And while its recommendations are aimed only at two-year colleges for now, they could eventually affect four-year institutions as well, whether through an overhaul of the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or an expansion of recommendations on learning outcomes and employment to apply to all colleges.

The 14-member committee was formed to deal with a requirement in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that two-year colleges report their completion rates to the federal government. But other measures of success proved more controversial during the committee’s year of meetings, especially students’ learning outcomes and employment after graduation.

At a meeting in September, originally intended to be the committee’s last, members clashed over whether a recommendation that the Education Department “encourage institutions to voluntarily collect, disclose and report … measures of student learning and employment” was sufficient. Representatives of community colleges strongly opposed any effort to expand the “gainful employment” rule, which evaluates vocational programs based on their students’ employment after graduation.

The final report recommends that the department provide incentives to institutions to measure student learning and employment, but stops short of recommending an expansion of gainful employment. At the committee’s final meeting Tuesday, members said it was an adequate compromise.

Harold Levy, a former New York City schools chancellor and managing director of Palm Ventures, who had advocated for stronger recommendations on measuring employment outcomes, described the final report as a “model of conciliation and compromise.”

The report’s recommendations include specific changes, mostly to data collection, that members said could be accomplished without new legislation: collecting completion data on part-time, degree-seeking students, students who require remedial courses, and students receiving federal financial aid, among others. The committee also calls for technical assistance to clarify what commonly used terms like “degree-seeking” or “substantial preparation for transfer” actually mean.

Community colleges largely praised these provisions. Including students who transfer in the completion rate would almost double the current rate, increasing it from 22 percent to 40 percent, said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“AACC has long maintained that the exclusion of transfer from the federal graduation rate has created a grossly distorted, and overly negative, picture of community college performance, given the centrality of transfer preparation to the community college mission,” the organization said in a statement.

Baime noted that many of the recommendations were similar to the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, an effort by the association to develop common standards for community college success. "Over all, we think it's a very positive development for us," he said. "The diagnosis of the problems, the issues that surfaced, they're saying, 'This you can do easily, this is more difficult' -- I think they pretty much got the whole thing kind of right."

Still, the association took issue with a few of the suggestions, saying that trying to measure success for students who require remedial classes as a separate group would encounter methodological obstacles: some students take remedial courses only in one subject area, for example. "We disagree with the policy conceptually, but also we don't really think it will work," Baime said.

Students who transfer to other two-year institutions should also be considered in completion rates, they said.

The true test of the committee’s report will lie in whether its recommendations are implemented. Some were vague, including the proposed “incentives” for colleges to disclose data and collaborate on measuring student on learning outcomes and employment.

Others would require legislative change, including a recommendation that addressed an old controversy: the creation of a federal “unit record” database that would track students from state to state and from college to careers. A previous effort to do so failed after encountering strong opposition from Congressional Republicans, independent colleges, and others, but the committee urged the department to try again during the next renewal of the Higher Education Act.

“Efforts at linking state data systems are uneven, and progress is slow,” the committee wrote in its report, calling a federal database an “ideal solution.”

The Education Department plans to create an action plan based on the committee’s recommendations in early January. The committee’s chairman, Thomas Bailey, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, described the report as the “midpoint of a long road.”

“We’ve acknowledged there is still a lot of work to do,” Bailey said.

A final draft of the report, with minor changes from the draft version approved Tuesday, will be submitted to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Congress in the coming weeks.

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