Many in community colleges have long seen little relevance in the federal government’s formula for calculating graduation rates, which only includes first-time, full-time undergraduates and doesn’t count transfer to four-year colleges as an indicator of student success. A new report  released by Jobs for the Future Wednesday offers an alternative approach, used in a pilot project in six states: “They said, What if we made some important changes that could make the picture more accurate? What would happen if we extended the time frame? Would graduation, would performance rates be different? What if we captured part-time students?” said Michael Collins, program director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based non-profit.
“What if we expanded the list of what’s success?”
Six states participating in the Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count  initiative – Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia – tested alternative measures of community college performance starting in 2006.
Among the changes: States began tracking full- and part-time students alike. Whereas in the federal system, the focus is solely on whether students earn a degree or certificate, the states broadened their definition of success to also include those transferring without a degree and students who remained enrolled in their sixth year with at least 30 completed credit hours – halfway to graduation. (“The thinking,” according to the report, “was that for students who had completed at least half of the course requirements toward a degree…and were still enrolled, there was a good chance that they would persist and eventually earn a degree or transfer to a four-year institution. Analysis verified this hypothesis.”)
The states also followed students as they moved between different institutions within state community college systems. And they lengthened the time frame for tracking students from three years, as in the federal formula, to six. In Florida, graduation rates for full-time students jumped from 19 to 35 percent when the time frame was extended from three to six years, and the rate for students who started part-time grew from 7 to 19 percent in the interval.
Collins said he was sensitive to criticisms that the colleges were crafting an accountability system tailored to play up their strengths, not their weaknesses. “It’s between apology and accountability. At what point in alternative measures are we kind of apologizing for where we’re not performing?” Collins said.
However, he pointed out that tracking the performance of part-time students lowered colleges’ overall outcomes, but that states felt it was important to include them in the analysis nonetheless. He also pointed out that the doubling or tripling of graduation rates from years three to six are “real data. Is chopping that off in three years really accurate given, in this sector, the percentage of students who attend part-time, who are older, all those different things? I think it’s a conversation worth having.”
Next up, the six-state working group is testing a set of interim measures to track student progress at an even more granular level – measuring completion of remedial coursework, for instance, and enrollment in and completion of the first college-level math and English courses.
“We’re hoping that this isn’t just about accountability,” said Collins. “This is largely about also giving us accurate information that’s actionable, that institutions can act on, having a more clear understanding of what’s happening to their students at what points.”