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WASHINGTON -- A long-held wish of many community colleges is on the verge of becoming reality: the Education Department has announced its plans to change how student success is measured in higher education, taking into account students who transfer, part-time students and students who are not attending college for the first time.

The department outlined its plans Wednesday to carry out the recommendations of the Committee on Measures of Student Success, a federal panel that called for changing how data on completion rates and other measures at community colleges is reported in the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System, or IPEDS.

While the recommendations are still several steps away from becoming reality -- the department’s "action plan" talked about “taking steps” and “examining the feasibility” of broadening the measures of success -- they are a victory for community colleges and their advocates, who have complained for years that the federal data reporting system doesn’t reflect the reality on their campuses.

The changes will apply to all postsecondary institutions, including four-year colleges. But they have the most significance for community colleges, which have been under political pressure to increase their graduation rates and have long argued that the current federal measures, which track only first-time, full-time students, exclude significant numbers of their students.

The department indicated that could soon change: it will take steps to enhance graduation and transfer rate reporting, and is examining the feasibility of including part-time degree-seeking students as well as other adult and nontraditional students. It also will clarify the meaning of “degree-seeking.”

Over all, the plans hew closely to the committee’s recommendations, including providing technical assistance on data collection. Grant programs will place a priority on improving colleges’ capacity for collecting and reporting data on student learning and employment outcomes, the panel’s most controversial recommendation.

But one policy that had troubled community colleges is absent from the department's plan: colleges will not be required to create a separate cohort of remedial students, which some had worried was unrealistic.

Community colleges cheered the changes, although they cautioned that the recommendations are technically complicated and are still months away (at least) from becoming reality.

“Transfer preparation is such an integral part of the community college mission,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “When that is excluded from the published completion rates, even though the law says that it should be included, it’s an affront to the successes of our colleges.”

The changes will help for-profit institutions that serve similar populations of adult students. "These nontraditional students will now have access to greater transparency about which institutions can best get them to the finish line of their academic careers," said Mike Buttry, vice president for communications at Capella Education, where the majority of students are not the first-time, full-time population traditionally monitored in IPEDS.

The department did not say what its timeline for implementing the recommendations will be.

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