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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 April 22 - 12:00 am

AACC Attendees Search for Metrics

PHILADELPHIA – Community college leaders agree on at least one thing when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of their institutions: Graduation rates – the metric of choice of policy makers and the U.S. Department of Education – are inadequate, misleading and unfair.

That was the overwhelming consensus emerging from a session at the 88th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, which attracted more than 2,000 college leaders to the Pennsylvania Convention Center here.

“It’s a pretty false measure,” said George Boggs, the association’s president, who offered course completion rates as a better gauge of a college’s effectiveness.

As community college leaders know, the graduation rate measures the percentage of full-time, first-time community college freshmen who earn an associate degree within three years of enrollment.

Under that measure, most two-year colleges struggle to hit even the 25 percent mark. At the session – entitled “Community Colleges: Who Should Measure Them and How?” – panelists laid out the reasons why.

Many students enroll in community college with no intent of ever getting an associate degree. Rather, they are there to earn a certificate, to earn enough credits to transfer to a four-year institution or for personal enrichment. Large percentages of students are enrolled part-time while holding full-time jobs. Those nuances are not captured in graduation rates.

“We have to look at the mission of the college,” Boggs said. “We have to look at the goals of our students before we come up with a measure.”

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager of the Education Sector and the author of a controversial magazine article that ranked community colleges, said graduation rates do not reflect the reality of the typical community college experience. 

“Graduation rates are a flawed measure for two-year colleges,” he said. “Why is the measure three years when the average time it takes a student to graduate is six?”

Part of the answer to that question can be found in the 150 percent metric, which the Education Department applies to both two-year and four-year colleges, Carey said. Graduation rates measure graduation within 150 percent of the standard time allotted for a degree — meaning six years for a four-year institution and three years for a community college.

Efforts to change that metric, or adopt new ones, have encountered stiff resistance from four-year colleges, particularly the elite institutions, Carey said. Those institutions typically have graduation rates in excess of 90 percent.

“Those at the top don’t want more data. They have nowhere to go but down,” he said. “They don’t want to be compared to you.”

But if graduation rates are a poor measure of community college success, what are good ones? There, consensus was more elusive. Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College and co-author of Minding the Dream: The Process and Practice of the American Community College, suggested that community colleges adopt a “value-added” measure. Colleges could measure whether a student saw his or her income rise after graduation, she said.

“We need metrics to show these incremental steps that community colleges have a profound  impact on,” she said. Her college has documented that LaGuardia students see an average increase in family income of 17 percent upon graduation, she said.

Still, Mellow does not advocate abandoning graduation rates as a measure of institutional effectiveness.

“It is really important that we graduate more students,” she said. “But I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t want to back away from graduation rates. I just want people to understand the complexity of the community college setting.”

Those complexities include the fact that community colleges educate the hardest-to-serve students, including large numbers of minorities and non-native born Americans. Community colleges also receive meager public funding when compared to their four-year brethren. Mellow has estimated that the U.S. spends almost three times more to educate each 4-year college student than it does for students at community colleges.

While decrying the reliance on graduation rates, none of the speakers suggested that community colleges don’t need to do a better job at educating and retaining their students.

Pressure from policymakers is likely to rise. The diversity that is the hallmark of community colleges is on the increase, they said. Demands for a better-educated workforce that can compete in a global economy are only accelerating.

“Our students are not as successful as they need to be,” Boggs said. “Our retention rates are abysmally low. We need to do better.” 

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