Much attention has been directed at college completion rates in the past two years, since President Obama announced his goal that the United States will again lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. The most recent contribution to this dialogue was last month’s release of "Time Is the Enemy"  by Complete College America.
Much in the introduction to this report is welcome. Expanding completion rate reporting to include part-time students, recognizing that more students are juggling employment and family responsibilities with college, acknowledging that many come to college unprepared for college-level work -- such awareness should inform our policy choices. All in higher education share the desire expressed by Complete College America that more students complete their programs, and do so in less time.
The graduation rates for two-year institutions included in "Time Is the Enemy" show, however, just how inadequate our current measures are for assessing community college student degree progress -- a shortfall also acknowledged by the appointment of the federal Committee on Measures of Student Success,  which is charged with making recommendations to the U.S. education secretary by April. Our current national completion measures for community colleges underestimate the true progress of students, presenting a misleading picture of the performance of these open-admissions institutions.
The following suggestions might inform a new set of national metrics for assessing student performance at two-year institutions.
Completion Rates for Community Colleges Should Include Transfers to Baccalaureate Institutions. Although community colleges usually advise students aiming for a bachelor’s degree to complete their associate degree before transferring, to reap the benefits of additional tuition savings and attain a credential, transferring before attaining the associate degree is, for many students, a rational decision. Accepting admission and assimilating into competitive baccalaureate programs and institutions, establishing mentorships with professors in the intended baccalaureate major, or embracing the residential college experience may all lead students to transfer before completing the associate degree. In addition, for a variety of reasons, universities may delay admission of incoming freshmen to the spring semester and advise them to start in the fall at a community college. These students are not seeking degrees at the community college, and will transfer after one semester. Thus, for two-year institutions, preparing students for transfer to a four-year institution should be considered an outcome as favorable as a student earning an associate degree.
The appropriate completion measure for community colleges is a combined graduation-transfer rate. The preferred metric is the percentage of students in the initial cohort who have graduated and/or transferred to a four-year institution. It is important to include transfers to out-of-state institutions in these calculations. In Maryland, a fourth of the community college transfers to baccalaureate institutions enroll in colleges and universities outside of Maryland. Reliance on state reporting systems that do not utilize national databases such as the National Student Clearinghouse to report this metric results in serious underestimates of student success. The need to track transfers across state lines is a major reason for the so-far-unsuccessful push for a national unit record system.
Comparisons of completion rates at community colleges and four-year institutions, where transfer is not included in the community college measure, are inappropriate. Reports such as "Time Is the Enemy" that report graduation rates for community colleges, with table labels such as “Associate Degree-seeking Students,” are misleading in that these calculations include many students who are pursuing baccalaureate transfer programs with no intention of earning the associate.
Completion Rate Calculations Should Exclude Students Not Seeking Degrees. Community colleges serve many students not seeking a college degree, and these students should be excluded from the calculation of completion rates. A student’s stated intent at entry is not adequate to identify degree-seekers, since students may be uncertain about their goals and goals may change. Enrollment in a degree program is not adequate, since students without a degree goal must declare a program in order to be eligible for financial aid, and many colleges force students to choose a major in order to gather gauge student interest for advising purposes.
A better way to define degree-seeking status is based on student behavior. Have students demonstrated pursuit of a degree by enrolling in more than two or three classes? A minimum number of attempted hours is the preferred way of defining the cohort to study. In Maryland, to be included in the denominator of graduation-transfer rates, a student must attempt at least 18 hours within two years of entry. Hours in developmental or remedial courses are included. This way of defining the cohort has several benefits. It does not exclude students beginning as part-time students, as IPEDS does. It eliminates transient students with short-term job skill enhancement or personal enrichment motives. By using attempted hours as the threshold, rather than earned credits as in some other states, this definition does not bias the sample toward success. Students who fail all their courses and earn zero credits will still be in the cohort if they have attempted 18 hours. And finally, it seems reasonable that students show some evidence of effort to persist if institutions are to be held accountable for their degree attainment.
Recognize that Community College Students Who Start Full-time Typically Do Not Remain Full-time. A number of studies suggest that the majority of community college students initially enrolling full-time switch to part-time attendance. This contrasts with students at most four-year institutions, who start and remain full-time. For example, 52 percent of students at community colleges that participate in the Achieving the Dream project began as full-time students. Yet only 31 percent attended full-time for the entire first year. Studies of Florida’s community colleges find similar results. Most students end up with a combination of full-time and part-time attendance, regardless of their initial status. Among students enrolled at least three additional semesters, only 30 percent of Florida’s “full-time” community college students enrolled full-time every semester. As a Florida College System report concludes, “Expecting a ‘full-time’ student to complete an associate degree in two years or even three assumes that the student remains full-time and this is most often not the case. As a result, students will progress at rates slower than assumed by models that consider initial full-time students to be full-time throughout their time in college.” Thus, comparisons of completion rates at 2-year and 4-year institutions, even controlling for full-time status in the first semester, are misleading. Studies at my college suggest that completion rates of community college students who start full-time and continuously attend full-time without interruption are comparable to completion rates attained at many four-year institutions.
Extend the Time for Assessing Completion to at least Six Years. “Normal Time” to completion excludes most associate degree completers. Due to part-time attendance, interrupted studies, and the need to complete remedial education, most associate degree graduates take more than three years to complete. Completion rates calculated at the end of three or four years will undercount true completion. It is not uncommon for a third of associate degree completers to take more than four years to complete their degree. At my institution, fully 5 percent of our associate degree recipients take 10 or more years to complete their “two-year” degree. These students are not failures; they are heroes. Yes, we would all like students to complete their degrees more quickly. But if life circumstances dictate a slower pace, let us support these students in their remarkable persistence. And, in our accountability reporting, recognize that our completion rate statistics are time-bound and fail to account for all who will eventually succeed in their degree pursuit.
When Comparing Completion Rates, Compare Institutions with Similar Students. Differences in completion rates among institutions largely reflect differences in student populations. Community college students who are similar to students at four-year institutions in academic preparation, and in their ability to consistently attend full-time, achieve completion rates comparable to those at many four-year institutions. In Maryland, if you include transfer as a community college completion, community colleges have four-year completion rates equal or higher than the eight-year bachelor’s degree graduation rates at a majority of the state’s four-year institutions with open or low-selectivity admissions. And the completion rate of college-ready community college students -- those not needing developmental education — is similar to all but the most selective four-year schools. At my college, 88 percent of the students in our honors program have graduated with an associate degree in two years. This graduation rate is comparable with that of Johns Hopkins and above that of the flagship University of Maryland at College Park.
Students at four-year institutions who are similar in profile to the typical community college student have completion rates similar to those attained at community colleges. This is not a new finding. A March 1996 report, "Beginning Postsecondary Students: Five Years Later," identified the following “risk factors” affecting bachelor’s degree completion: delayed enrollment in higher education, being a GED recipient, being financially independent, having children, being a single parent, attending part-time, and working full-time while enrolled. Fifty-four percent of the students who had none of these risk factors earned the bachelor’s degree within five years. The graduation rate for students with just one of these risk factors fell to 42 percent. For students with two risk factors the bachelor’s degree graduation rate was 21 percent, and for those with three or more the graduation rate was 13 percent.
Readers of this essay who work at community colleges are probably smiling to themselves. For most community colleges, the majority, if not the overwhelming majority, of students are coping with several of these risk factors. And this list does not account for the need of most community college students for developmental or remedial education. The comparability of completion rates at two- and four-year institutions, when student characteristics are controlled for, should not be a surprising finding.
If we must compare completion rates, it is incumbent upon analysts to account for differences in the academic preparation and life circumstances of student populations. This can be done by sophisticated statistical analysis, or in the selection of peer groups of institutions with similar admissions policies and student body demographics.
Support Hopeful Signs at the Federal Level. The work to date of the Committee on Measures of Student Success authorized by the Higher Education Act of 2008 is encouraging. The committee is to make recommendations to the Secretary of Education by April 2012 regarding the accurate reporting of completion rates for community colleges.
A number of the recommendations in the committee’s draft report issued September 2, 2011 would greatly improve reporting of completion statistics for community colleges:
- Defining the degree-seeking cohort for calculating completion rates by looking at student behavior, such as a threshold number of hours attempted.
- Recognizing that “preparing students for transfer to a four-year institution is an equally positive outcome as a student earning an associate’s degree.”
- Reporting a combined graduation-transfer rate as the primary outcome measure for degree-seeking students.
- Creating an interim, persistence measure combining lateral transfer with retention at the initial institution.
These recommendations show an understanding of the student populations served by community colleges. Inclusion of these definitions and measures in federal IPEDS reporting would provide more meaningful peer, state, and national benchmarks for all community colleges.