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By Paul Bradley  /  
2012 April 30 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: By the Numbers

C   O   V   E   R      S   T   O   R   Y

By the Numbers
New Metrics Promise More Accurate Picture
Of Community Colleges
By Paul Bradley

The ascendency of community colleges to the forefront of the debate around America’s ailing system of higher education has been a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the once-neglected sector is enjoying its time in the spotlight. After years of being shunted to the back room, they are now seated at the head table. On the other, the colleges have become a convenient whipping boy in a poisoned political atmosphere, pummeled in Washington D.C. and in state capitols for their poor graduation rates and shaky student outcomes.

That was never more true than when the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, recently weighed in on the state of the community college system and found it badly wanting, wasting taxpayers’ precious dollars and depriving the American economy of billions of dollars in salaries from college graduates. An AEI report, entitled “Completion matters: the high cost of low community college graduation rates,” recommended, among other things, that community colleges emulate their for-profit brethren, where faculty are evaluated on the basis of their students’ learning outcomes, and promotion and salary decisions are based in part on these metrics.

The report drew an uncharacteristically sharp rebuke from the American Association of Community Colleges, which said the report, in addition to being shoddy scholarship, was an example of needless piling on.

“It is worth stating that anyone with even a basic understanding of American higher education is aware that community colleges are intensively focused on improving their completion rates,” an AACC statement said. “Community colleges are in a ferment of activity designed to increase degree and credential attainment.Virtually all campuses are focused on ensuring that this goal is achieved without a diminution of community colleges’ historic commitment to broad access and working with students as they are, not as one might wish them to be, particularly in terms of academic preparation. Community colleges do not need an AEI ‘study’ to help them appreciate the magnitude, and the import, of the challenge they face — or the costs of failure.”

The dustup proved conclusively that community colleges are shedding their sad-sack persona and that the AACC is ready to swing some sharp elbows in the rough-and-tumble combat that passes for political debate in Washington. More broadly, it points to a frustration that long has bedeviled the community college sector: the use of metrics and statistics , particularly graduation rates, that make the colleges easy fodder for critics.

But the days of easy bashing community colleges for lousy graduation rates could be nearing an end. After more than a year of work by its Committee on Measures of Student Success, the federal Department of Education has put its imprimatur on the panel’s recommendations, outlining an “action plan” aimed at broadening student graduation data to reflect the diverse student populations at two-year colleges.

“Not all students take a linear path in their pursuit of higher education,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Many students work full-time and are balancing family obligations while also attending school. These new outcome measures will accurately demonstrate how postsecondary schools are preparing students for success in different ways.”

Skewed statistics yielding an inaccurate portrait is a problem painfully familiar to community college leaders, who long have complained that the government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) presents a grossly distorted picture of their institutions.

Under current law, all colleges must report data to IPEDS. But for community colleges, large swaths of their enrollments are never counted. That’s because colleges are required to track graduation rates only for full-time, first-time students. Students who transfer to another college are deemed to have failed – ditto for the college itself — no matter what the outcome was at the second college.

Under the new measures, both transfers and part-time students will be tracked for the first time. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the community college student completion rate would jump from 22 percent to 40 percent if transfers were included in IPEDS.

“Policy makers will absolutely get a much more accurate picture of our diverse missions,” said Wayne M. Burton, president of North Shore Community College (Mass.) and a member of the measures committee. “Community colleges are unique in that they don’t select their students. Using the same metrics to measure community college students as are used in four-year selective colleges and universities makes no sense. Our students fit school around their lives. Many of them are adults. They have children, elderly parents, and jobs. These are people to whom, often, life has not been kind. We are not failing them, and they are not failing simply because it takes them longer to reach their destinations.”

The report that Burton helped author said, “The current federal graduation rate measure is incomplete and does not adequately convey the wide range of student outcomes at two-year institutions,” the report said. “For example, the student cohort used in calculating federal graduation rates excludes many students who typically enroll at two-year institutions.”

“Data are not collected on other important outcomes achieved by students at two-year institutions. Although federal graduation rates provide important comparable data across institutional sectors, limitations in the data understate the success of students enrolled at two-year institutions and can be misleading to the public.”

Advocates of changing the graduation rate measure like to share a favorite anecdote. Under the current system, they note, President Obama was twice a failure. First, he enrolled at Occidental College, but never finished, transferring to Columbia University. And while he graduated from Columbia and earned a degree there in 1983, he wasn’t counted there either because he was not a first-time, full-time student.

Community college leaders did not get all they wanted from the Education Department. The ED declined to endorse a recommendation that students in need of remediation be tracked as a separate cohort. David Baime, vice president for policy for the AACC, said the group opposed the plan, in part because of the difficulty in defining which developmental students should be counted.

“We felt strongly it was a bad idea,” he said. “Where do you draw the line? You have the potential for all kinds of discrimination. It is a really sticky wicket. The Education Department was wise not to go down that path.”

It could takes months or years for the Education Department to develop and approve the specifics of the new measures. Once it does, community colleges will be seen more accurately assessed, said Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and a former community college president. She served on the measures committee.

“I think they are very important since many students who enroll at community
colleges are not full-time and don’t enroll with the intention of graduating,” she said. “It will also showcase the other areas where they are successful, such as moving students from developmental courses to college level courses.”

Providing a more accurate portrayal of community college students will be the ultimate payoff, Burton said.

“More pernicious than any aspect of the current IPEDS graduation rate is the disrespect of our students it perpetuates, exacerbating the not-so-latent classism permeating American society,” he said. “That our students, mostly first in their families to attend college who work so hard to overcome challenges that would bring many of us to our knees, are in any way disrespected is a travesty. Yet, ‘community college’ has become a demeaning term and a punch line for late night comics. And IPEDS grad rate only served to reinforce that impression. The new rate, in time, will remove the wrongful community college stigma and bring our students the credit they deserve.”

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