Rapid growth in the number of students earning credentials at community colleges over the last two decades has outpaced enrollment gains at those institutions, according to a report  released Wednesday by the American Association of Community Colleges. Findings include faster gains for minority students, meaning a partial closing of the “achievement gap” in credentials awarded.
The total number of degrees and certificates awarded by community colleges increased by 127 percent between 1990 and 2010, the report found, while enrollment increased by 65 percent. And credentials earned by Hispanic students, for example, increased by 440 percent compared to enrollment growth of 226 percent.
Community colleges are under tremendous pressure to improve low graduation rates while also preserving student access. The report serves to add some context to discussions about the high-profile completion agenda — giving community colleges some credit for what they do well.
The report does not include graduation rates, which are both slippery and controversial, particularly when tracking community college students. (About 19 percent of full-time students earn an associate degree within four years, according to a recently-released study  of completion rates in 33 states.) But some observers said the report is important for the signal it sends that the community college sector has embraced the need to improve those rates, and to collect and use better data in its work.
The report is “significant and important,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, because it shows that community colleges are taking the completion agenda seriously. It also represents a “sea change” in the use of data. “A comfortable culture of anecdotes” was the norm when community colleges discussed student success in recent years, she said.
Data can cut both ways when sizing up the performance of community colleges. Amy Laitinen, a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, said deeper looks into their completion rates are often unflattering, but without good numbers, community colleges often struggle to show their strengths.
“We’re making these critical decisions and investments with woefully inadequate data,” said Laitinen.
The report specifically singles out data about student transfer as an area that needs work. Institutions are required under the Student Right-to-Know Act to report transfer rates to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). But this information is often incomplete, according to the report.
“Due to the vagaries of the Student Right-to-Know reporting framework and the undue emphasis it has received, community colleges are performing at a level much greater than generally reported or understood,” writes Christopher M. Mullin, program director for policy analysis at AACC and the report’s author.
McClenney applauds the report’s development and release, as well as its findings. However, she said it presents only a “partial picture” without completion rates. And more work remains to be done by community colleges to improve those rates.
“We’re not where we need to be,” she said. “So let’s not forget that in the celebration.”
Mullin said in an interview that one goal of the report was to expand the conversation about student success beyond graduation rates. But he agreed with McClenney that despite the report’s positive findings, more progress needs to be made.
“I don’t think that this signals that the game is over by any means,” Mullin said.