Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making Sure the College Completion Numbers Add Up

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education released an action plan that would revise how colleges and universities are evaluated, with graduation rates to now reflect students who attend part-time, as well as those who are returning to school.

The new formula is particularly important for community colleges, which have long complained that two significant segments of their student populations were being underreported. And a new web tool launching today from the College Board could offer more perspective on how community colleges are performing.

The revised evaluation model “has been a long time coming,” said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation, which has launched an aggressive campaign to boost postsecondary student success. “This data might help answer questions about whether students are actually finishing their degrees. Right now, we don’t even know that. Without that answer, it’s difficult to figure out how to improve.”

Lumina’s Goal 2025 campaign seeks to increase the percentage of the nation’s population with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent. In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 38.3 percent of working-age Americans (ages 25-64) held a two- or four-year college degree. That’s a slight improvement from 2009, when the rate was 38.1 percent, and 2008, when the rate was 37.9 percent.

To reach the 60 percent goal by the year 2025, Lumina is proposing four steps:

1. Rewarding institutions that improve completion rates;

2. Rewarding individual students who finish their degrees;

3. Expanding opportunities for nontraditional and low-cost degree options;

4. And investing in business practices that support this mission.

While much of the attention is on the nation’s relatively poor rate of higher education completion, a surprising number of adults – 22 percent of the population – have taken some college courses. That’s 37 million Americans who have at least a few college credits even if they don’t have a degree. Many of them actually have enough credits to qualify for a two-year associate’s degree, or are well on their way to a bachelor’s degree, Matthews said.

But even if those students were to return to school — which is something Lumina, other nonprofits, states and higher education institutions are working hard to support – their progress would be excluded from the overall completion rates until the revised formula is put into place.

Community colleges, long relegated to second-class status behind institutions that award four-year degrees, are now facing both fresh scrutiny and higher expectations as a key element of the country’s continued economic recovery.

At the same time, community college systems are struggling with a huge influx of nontraditional students. Many of them are working adults looking for short-term certification programs in order to find new careers or hold on to the ones they have. From Massachusetts to California, community college educators and administrators are trying to find a balance between supporting students who are likely to complete their degrees, and maintaining an open door to higher education.

In California, a community college task force has issued a controversial set of recommendations for reaching those goals, which included severely restricting the number of majors that are offered; requiring students to complete a long-term academic plan before beginning their studies; and mandating that students complete any remedial classes at the start of their studies. The report also called for better coordination between the K-12 education system and community colleges in efforts to reduce the need for remediation and improve completion rates.

The tension between access and success is a false dichotomy, Matthews said.

“Access means nothing if it’s not access to success,” Matthews said. “Students that are moving forward should have access to classes, good advising and counseling, and the financial support to complete as quickly as possible. It’s in their interest, and in the national interest, to see that happens.”

Lumina created the Achieving the Dream Project, a collaborative initiative among nearly 30 community colleges to improve student completion rates, with a special emphasis on minorities and low-income individuals. But data for the first five years of the project (2004-09) found that even though community colleges overhauled their practices, student outcomes in core English and math classes remained unchanged. A final report is due at the end of the year.

Completion is “the Achilles heel of community colleges,” Matthews said. The premise of Achieving the Dream is to develop a “culture of evidence” that guides decisions about instruction, programs and services that will ultimately help community college students find greater success, Matthews said.

The push for better data on higher education student outcomes is one of the reasons the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center developed its new “Completion Arch,” which is being introduced today. The new searchable, digital database compiles state-level data on community college students in five areas: enrollment; developmental education placement; progress; transfer and completion; and job placement/workforce outcomes.

The digital tool uses a wider lens to view the data – there are no campus-level statistics available. But users can access the free site to compare outcomes among states, as well as against national averages.

Discussing the Completion Arch with education reporters in an EWA webinar last week, Christen Pollock, a vice president at the center, said the initiative “recognizes the need for solid data and metrics beyond the traditional enrollment and graduation rates to really understand progress in the two-year sector” of higher education.

The effort is “really a testament to the importance of community colleges to meet the nation’s education goals and economic strengths,” Pollock said. “We understand that these goals are not going to be met without a significant and sustained participation of the community colleges.”



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