Community college graduation rates are low -- in some cases abysmally so. And as the push grows to hold colleges accountable for their students’ academic success, some leaders of two-year institutions have expressed concern that the low completion rates could make the colleges appear ineffective.
But a study released Wednesday by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics offers some evidence to back up the argument of some community college officials that the institutions do pretty well with those who actually want to earn a degree.
The study,  part of a larger series of reports on American undergraduates emerging from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, zeroes in on community college students, who it notes make up about 40 percent of all undergraduates and are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college. Because so many underserved students get their start at community colleges, the report states, the fact that fewer than half of first-time freshmen who enrolled at two-year institutions in 1995-96 had either transferred to a four-year institution or earned a degree or other academic credential within six years is of understandable concern to policy makers.
To help figure out why, the study's authors, Laura Horn, director of statistical analysis and data design at MPR Associates, and Stephanie Nevill, a research associate, examined a cohort of students who entered college in 2003-4 and sought to measure what they called the "degree commitment" of community college students: "their relative commitment to completing their respective degree programs." The authors defined as "more committed" those students who attended college at least half-time and reported that they had enrolled either to transfer to a four-year college or to earn an associate degree or certificate. "Less committed" students were those who did not fulfill the two criteria but were nonetheless enrolled in formal degree programs. Students not in a degree program at all were deemed "not committed" to getting a degree.
The authors found that just 49 percent of all community college students qualified as "more committed" to earning a degree, while 39 percent were "less committed" and 12 percent characterized as "not committed" at all. Students in four-year transfer programs and those under the age of 24 were more likely than their peers to fall into the "more committed" category.
Tracking the students for a year, the study found that a significantly higher proportion of the "more committed" students (83 percent) either obtained a credential or stayed enrolled for nine months than were other students. Only 70 percent of the "less committed" students and 58 percent of the nondegree students showed similarly "strong enrollment continuity," as the authors termed it.
The findings, Horn said in an interview Wednesday, largely support the argument often put forward by community college officials that students attend the institutions for many reasons. While the report is "certainly no rationalization" for low graduation rates, she said, it may be a partial explanation.
"It appears that a substantial proportion of students who enroll in formal degree programs do not necessarily want to complete a credential; rather, greater proportions cited personal interest or obtaining job skills as reasons for enrolling," the report says.
It concludes: "The results suggest that if community college graduation rates were based on students expressing a clear intention of transfer or degree completion rather than on simply being enrolled in a formal degree program, they would be considerably higher."
Whether federal and other policy makers take such a view into account in looking at the low graduation rates at some two-year institutions, however, is far from certain.