Redefining Access and Success
December 4, 2009
College and university leaders are regularly criticized for making too
little information available or presenting only the data that show them in
the best light.
No such statement can be made about the leaders of 24 public college systems
that on Thursday -- as part of a two-year-old
<http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/10/31/system> initiative aimed at
boosting college completion and closing racial and socioeconomic gaps in
enrollment and graduation -- released extensive data about their performance
on those fronts.
The data collected by Education Trust and the National Association of System
Heads, as part of the Access to Success initiative,
e-report-of-the-access-to-success-initiative> represent a breakthrough of
sorts, in that they suggest a path to improving on the existing federal
graduation rate and other data that are widely acknowledged to be inadequate
(that's the polite term). By including part-time students and those who
transfer in and out of a system's member institutions, they nearly double
the number of students covered by the existing federal graduation rate
And by attaching to the systems' data an indicator of their students'
low-income status -- by tagging those who are eligible to receive Pell
Grants -- the Access to Success data make it possible, for the first time,
to gauge how successful the college systems are at enrolling and graduating
Because of those changes, the picture provided by the data is, as Chancellor
Charles Reed of the California State University System said during a news
conference about the initiative Thursday, "much more realistic" than what
has previously been available.
The more realistic picture is not necessarily a pretty one, though. While
each college system in the Education Trust initiative is assessed by
comparing data on their students with those of their states' overall
populations -- the individual systems' reports can be found here
<http://www.edtrust.org/issues/higher-education/access-to-success> -- the
report also examines them at the national level. And given that the 24
systems enroll 40 percent of the nation's four-year students and 20 percent
of all undergraduates, the data provide a clear -- and in many ways "scary,"
said Kati Haycock, Education Trust's president -- picture of a country where
low-income and minority students badly lag their peers in college enrollment
Those students enroll in and graduate from four-year programs at
disproportionately lower rates than do other high school graduates in their
respective states, and while low-income and minority students are
overrepresented at two-year institutions compared to their proportions among
high school graduates, they are underrepresented among students who finish
two-year programs because so few transfer or earn a credential or degree.
The data show that "there is a lot of work ahead for these institutions,"
said Haycock. But while she and her group are often known as tough critics
of educational leaders at both the secondary and postsecondary level,
Haycock was effusive in praising the leaders of the 24 college systems for
voluntarily making these data public, committing their institutions to
improving the figures -- and not abandoning the effort despite serious
budget travails in most states. (In fact, the number of participating
systems has grown from 19 when it was announced two years ago to 24 now, and
two -- the University System of Ohio and the University of Wisconsin System
-- joined just last summer, well after the economy had deteriorated.
"It's a pretty big deal that this many systems that educate this large a
fraction of America's undergraduates are willing to commit themselves to
this set of goals, and willing to give the data over to the likes of us,"
she said in an interview. "And to take it on at a time when most are facing
what can only be described as draconian budget cuts is daunting."
Ahead of the Pack
The Access to Success initiative was announced two years ago, in November
2007, well before President Obama, spurred by leading foundations, laid out
his goal of restoring the United States to the top of the list of countries
in the proportion of their citizens with a postsecondary education.
The point made by Access to Success, and its leaders and members, is that
the country can't get there unless colleges and universities do better with
low-income and minority students, whose share of the country's population is
growing by the day, and who have historically been underrepresented -- and
sometimes ill-served -- in higher education.
Some higher education leaders frame the issue -- as the Obama administration
largely does -- as an economic matter. In Louisiana, said Sally Clausen,
commissioner of higher education there, the white population is expected to
grow at a 4-6 percent rate over the next several years, while the number of
low-income and minority residents in the state will rise by 70 percent. "If
all racial and ethnic groups, and people of low income, had the same
educational attainment of other populations here, if all were equally
entering and succeeding in higher education, the personal income of
Louisiana's population would be $10 billion higher," she said. So the state
cannot afford not to achieve Access to Success's goal.
The issue is one of civil rights, too, said William E. (Brit) Kirwin,
chancellor of the University System of Maryland, another Access to Success
participant. (See full list of participating states at the bottom of the
"A college education has become the passport to a meaningful job and a high
quality of life," Kirwin said. "The current impact of poverty on the ability
and opportunity to get a college degree is just devastating, and if this
initiative isn't successful, we'll be relegating a large fraction of the
population to a permanent state of poverty. That's not what our country
The first big challenge that Education Trust and the system heads' group
faced after setting the goal of cutting the racial and socioeconomic
achievement gaps in half was in defining, precisely, what those gaps are.
The federal graduation rate and the data from which it is derived, which
come from the IPEDS, are widely acknowledged to be flawed, most notably
because they count only full-time, first-time freshmen at a time when they
represent a shrinking fraction of students. "It was pretty clear" to leaders
of the initiative that "IPEDS and the data they typically report for that
weren't sufficient," said Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher
education at Education Trust.
So they set about deciding what information they would need to collect to
give a more accurate sense of how the institutions were faring, especially
with low-income and minority students. The release of the baseline data
Thursday represented two years of work in agreeing on definitions (what is a
transfer student? how to define "low-income student"?), building the
database, and collecting information from the systems.
(Some limitations remain, Engle acknowledged: While the "access" data cover
all students who enrolled over the course of a year, the "success" numbers,
for now, deal only with those students who enroll in the fall, and whether
they graduated within six years, because some systems didn't have the
broader information retroactively.)
Education Trust officials make clear that the point of the data collection
(and what will be occasional publication of the information as it is
updated) is to give each system a baseline from which to measure its own
progress -- not to compare systems to one another.
So the Access to Success metric for "access," for instance, compares the
proportion of one college system's freshman students who are Pell-eligible
against the proportion of that state's high school graduates who are from
low-income families, and identifies the gap.
Nationally, pulling together data from all the systems, the gap is 11
percent, with 30 percent of students at four-year institutions in the 24
systems being Pell eligible, compared to 41 percent of high school students
in the states who are from low-income backgrounds. Similar gaps exist for
minority students among both freshman and transfer students, as seen in the
Enrollment Gaps for Low-Income and Minority Students
% of Low-Income College Students
% of Low-Income High School Graduates
Gap for Low-Income Students
% of Underrepresented Minority Students in College
% Underrepresented Minorities, High School Graduates
Gap for Underrepresented Minority Students
As is evident in the table, first-year students at two-year institutions are
actually more likely to be minority and low-income students than one would
anticipate based on their representation among high school students. That
suggests that community colleges are serving their historical role as an
"open door" to higher education, said Engle. But that promise fades when
considering the data on students' success once at the institutions, said
The data collected through Access to Success show that just 32 percent of
all freshmen who enter community colleges transfer to a four-year
institution or receive an associate degree or certificate within four years.
And while low-income students perform at that same rate, underrepresented
minority students fare worse -- just 24 percent do so.
"That doesn't exactly make you feel good about how things are going,
especially with the current infatuation with community colleges" in federal
policy, said Haycock.
The four-year "success" numbers are only somewhat better, according to the
Access to Success data. Fifty-three percent of all freshmen in the 24
systems earned bachelor's degrees within six years, compared to 44 percent
of underrepresented minority students and 45 percent of low-income students.
Excluding low-income and minority students, the rate for other students was
The final Access to Success metric -- "access+success" -- aims to compare
the systems' college graduation rates with the high school graduation rates
in their states. Nationally, 26 percent of the students who graduated from
the 24 systems within six years were Pell-eligible, while 41 percent of
their states' 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates were from low income
backgrounds, a 15 percent gap. Twenty-two percent of the four-year colleges'
graduates were members of minority groups, meanwhile, compared to 35 percent
of high school graduates, for a 13 percent gap.
As system leaders looked at their own performances, they saw positive as
well as worrying signs. California State University, whose outreach efforts
to low-income and minority students have been praised and copied, continues
to enroll significantly smaller proportions of students from those groups
than from other backgrounds, Reed acknowledged. But he said he was heartened
by the fact that 84 percent of the university's transfer students come from
the California Community Colleges, and that 66 percent of them graduate
within six years.
Now that they've published their baseline data, the systems -- and Access to
Success's leaders -- know what they have to shoot at. The systems are at
varying stages of figuring out their strategies for closing their
achievement gaps, with Maryland and the University of Louisiana System (and
their individual campuses) having already developed their plans, and some
others doing so just now.
David Carter, who heads the Connecticut State University System, said its
campuses had already seen significant progress from its
<http://www.ctstateu.edu/bridge.htm> "Building a Bridge" program, which, by
improving reading and math readiness in local high schools, has sharply
reduced the proportion of students who need developmental courses in those
subjects when they get to the system's campuses.
As the individual systems are working on their plans, Education Trust and
the system heads' organization are bringing in experts on such things as
course redesign (an approach used
<http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/09/ncat> heavily in Maryland)
and project "delivery" (based on the work of Michael Barber in Britain
and helping them share their successes (and failures) with one another to
better achieve their goals.
While the down economy could impair what the systems have to spend on these
efforts, it also could propel them to be more creative, said Haycock.
"The challenge for these leaders is how to lean into this crisis and use
it," she said, "as opposed to walking away from it."
- <mailto:[log in to unmask]> Doug Lederman
ents> to comments (1) >
Comments on Redefining Access and Success
* Greater nuance would help
* Posted by Cliff Adelman , Senior Associate at Institute for Higher
Education Policy on December 4, 2009 at 7:30am EST
* This is a more sophisticated way of getting at annual, state-based
data than we have seen to date, and it certainly proves to be a stimulus for
constructive state-system efforts to improve completion and close gaps for
students who remain in state, even if they transfer. But the difference
between national accounts of completion including transfers (from the the
Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal studies and grade cohort
longitudinal studies of the National Center of Education Statistics) and
this study are substantial (e.g. the BPS 95-2001 study shows a 63 percent
"graduated from anywhere" rate while EdTrust/NASH runs at least 10 points
lower depending who one is talking about), that one has to ask what is
That's obvious: These data count as successes only those students who earn
degrees "within the system," i.e. they miss students who are transfers out
and earn degrees in another state. So even within the 24 systems they've
involved, they miss the student who starts in one and finishes in another.
One would (a) have to go to the National Student Clearinghouse to track that
information, and (b) pray that it's all there (there is no guarantee). There
is no evidence in the report that they tried to do this. How big a group are
we talking about? For the "older" but transcript-based National Education
Longitudinal Study it was 9.0% of the people who started in a four-year
college and who earned a bachelor's in 8.5 years (1992-2000), and 9.9% of
all bachelor's degree recipients (see "Principal Indicators of Student
Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000"--U.S. Dept. of Ed,
2004, pp 12-14 with the table on p.14). That's not a small percentage,
though I would bet (I'd have to run the data on it), that the interstate
transfers come from higher socioeconomic groups, so the gaps would be
greater. Too, that this is NELS data, so one is dealing with 18-26/27
year-olds most of whom started in higher ed by age 20, and these folks tend
to complete degrees at a higher rate than those who start later in their
20s. As for the geographic mobility of traditional-age community college
beginners, about 25% of transfer students cross state lines in transfer, so
that's another group they aren't accounting for. The point is that we have a
very geomobile student population with a proportion that lies beyond the
micromanagement of state systems. That doesn't diminish the efforts of
Access to Success (I am working with one piece of it, so obviously believe
in it), but it does suggest a more nuanced portrait that accounts for
geomobility would ultimately be more helpful.
* <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/03/subbac> Movement,
But Miles to Go
December 3, 2009
* <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/01/calstate> The Big
December 1, 2009
* <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/01/rules> Aggressive
Tack on Incentive Comp
December 1, 2009
* <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/30/sweetbriar> The
Price of an Enrollment Shortfall
November 30, 2009
* <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/30/nevada> Access to
November 30, 2009
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