Sept. 11, 2008

Different Measures of Community College Outcomes

Many in community colleges have long seen little relevance in the federal
government's formula for calculating graduation rates, which only includes
first-time, full-time undergraduates and doesn't count transfer to four-year
colleges as an indicator of student success. A new report
ys+to+Measure+and+Compare+Community+College+Performance.html>  released by
Jobs for the Future Wednesday offers an alternative approach, used in a
pilot project in six states: "They said, What if we made some important
changes that could make the picture more accurate? What would happen if we
extended the time frame? Would graduation, would performance rates be
different? What if we captured part-time students?" said Michael Collins,
program director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based non-profit.

"What if we expanded the list of what's success?"

Six states participating in the Achieving
<>  the Dream: Community Colleges
Count initiative - Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and
Virginia - tested alternative measures of community college performance
starting in 2006.

Among the changes: States began tracking full- and part-time students alike.
Whereas in the federal system, the focus is solely on whether students earn
a degree or certificate, the states broadened their definition of success to
also include those transferring without a degree and students who remained
enrolled in their sixth year with at least 30 completed credit hours -
halfway to graduation. ("The thinking," according to the report, "was that
for students who had completed at least half of the course requirements
toward a degree.and were still enrolled, there was a good chance that they
would persist and eventually earn a degree or transfer to a four-year
institution. Analysis verified this hypothesis.")

The states also followed students as they moved between different
institutions within state community college systems. And they lengthened the
time frame for tracking students from three years, as in the federal
formula, to six. In Florida, graduation rates for full-time students jumped
from 19 to 35 percent when the time frame was extended from three to six
years, and the rate for students who started part-time grew from 7 to 19
percent in the interval.

Collins said he was sensitive to criticisms that the colleges were crafting
an accountability system tailored to play up their strengths, not their
weaknesses. "It's between apology and accountability. At what point in
alternative measures are we kind of apologizing for where we're not
performing?" Collins said.

However, he pointed out that tracking the performance of part-time students
lowered colleges' overall outcomes, but that states felt it was important to
include them in the analysis nonetheless. He also pointed out that the
doubling or tripling of graduation rates from years three to six are "real
data. Is chopping that off in three years really accurate given, in this
sector, the percentage of students who attend part-time, who are older, all
those different things? I think it's a conversation worth having."

Next up, the six-state working group is testing a set of interim measures to
track student progress at an even more granular level - measuring completion
of remedial coursework, for instance, and enrollment in and completion of
the first college-level math and English courses.

"We're hoping that this isn't just about accountability," said Collins.
"This is largely about also giving us accurate information that's
actionable, that institutions can act on, having a more clear understanding
of what's happening to their students at what points."

- Elizabeth Redden <mailto:[log in to unmask]> 

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C Copyright 2008 Inside Higher Ed


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