For years now, community colleges have bemoaned the fact that they don't get credit for the students who pass through their halls but leave without a certification or degree.
So California has spent the past two years examining just what happens to these students. Many of them don't drop out in the traditional sense. Instead, they take one or two career or technical education courses at the community colleges and then leave. Using employment and student data, California community colleges have been able to determine that after finishing just a few courses, these "noncompleters" receive promotions or increases in wages that allow them to move up in their careers and contribute even more to the state's economy.
"We've been frustrated for decades. Too often we've been forced into an accountability system that only recognizes success when a student gets a degree, certificate or transfers … There are literally millions of students over the decades who have had tremendous success, but don't get counted," said Brice Harris, the chancellor of California's two-year college system. "These students come to us seeking to keep their skills current or move ahead in their careers, and after finishing a few courses reap significant rewards. We finally have a way to measure these successes and demonstrate the tremendous return on investment that these courses provide."
The state is calling this new cohort of students skills builders. The group, which is defined as students who have completed less than a year of career technical education, but at least one course, will be added to the state's publicly available scorecard assessment of the performance of the 113 community colleges in the system. Using Employment Development Department wage data and student information, the system has been able to determine that this particular group of students saw a median wage gain of 13.6 percent, or $4,300.
Statewide, total wage gains for these students in 2013-14 was $498 million, according to the data. The chancellor's office also has been able to break down the wage gains from each program at each of the colleges. For instance, skills builders in the police academy at Los Medanos Community College saw the largest increase. The median wage in that program increased from $23,027 to $84,898 for students who completed a few courses.
Skills builders tended to be found in child development education, justice, accounting, fire technology, business and commerce, and information technology programs.
"State after state has been focusing on understanding subbaccalaureate education, but very few, if any, have jumped into evaluating the population of noncompleters in this way," said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in a written statement. "The work on skills builders … is forcing a pause and reset in how we think about college dropouts by revealing that many students have figured out how to effectively engage the postsecondary system at low cost with high returns."
California was able to determine that the skills builders tend to be older and already have earned degrees or awards, which was an indicator they were only at the colleges to take a few courses while already working, said Alice Van Ommeren, dean of research, analysis and accountability for the system.
Despite being labeled noncompleters by the colleges, there's another area where these students see success but aren't counted.
"One of the other things mentioned with skill builders is that these students are able to get third-party credentials, which is part of our goal, but we haven't been able to count them because of the lack of data," said Courtney Brown, director of organizational performance and evaluation for the Lumina Foundation. Lumina has set a nationwide goal of reaching 60 percent degree or high-quality credential attainment among adults by 2025. "They go to community colleges and learn what they need. Then they go back to their industry and get a certification. They are completers, but there's no data system to track them."
For the most part, only exit interviews and matching student-level records to wage records would reveal these students' paths, said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at New America.
"It really complicates the picture around what is happening in community colleges," McCarthy said. "Some are actually pursuing a very purposeful strategy of building specific skills to give themselves a leg up in the labor market, and that's great news. But having data systems that help us identify those students and the combinations of courses that are working for them can be really valuable for building a better system around up-skilling."
That additional data also would help colleges be able to tell the differences between a student reaching their educational goals without receiving a degree or certification, and a student who leaves for other reasons.
"For nontraditional students, like others, it is difficult to tell the difference in the data between a true skills builder and a student who intended to finish a credential but left school before completing, perhaps because they did not get the supports they needed to complete," said Anna Cielinski, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy's Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success.
Harris said the system looks at a number of student success benchmarks including whether students completed their courses.
"We're proud of the fact that we continue to compute successes for more of our students, but that doesn't alleviate the responsibility we have for students who leave prematurely," he said.