Revised Data Shows Community Colleges have been not Much Appreciated

A college degree is the key to unlocking many of the best careers in the modern labor market. But more than 20 million working-age adults in the United States are college dropouts, failed in some way by institutions that collectively receive hundreds of billions of dollars in public funding every year.

For the last few decades, the Department of Education has tracked graduation rates at colleges. Although a handful of elite colleges have graduation rates above 90 percent, many are below 50 percent — often, far below. But colleges have long complained that the federal rates are inaccurate. Back in 2008, Congress directed the department to study the matter.

Two years later (the wheels of government turn slowly), the 15-person Committee on Measures of Student Success convened. I was a member. So was Wayne Burton, the president of North Shore Community College in Danvers, Mass. Over several months, Mr. Burton argued forcefully that his college was a lot better than federal graduation rates suggested. The committee decided he was on to something, and recommended that the Education Department calculate graduation rates in a new way.

Six more years went by (there was a lot going on). Then this month the Education Department released the revised set of graduation rates. It turns out that Mr. Burton, who has since retired from academia and joined New Hampshire’s citizen legislature, was right all along.

The new data suggests that some community colleges are doing a much better job of preparing students for future success than they’ve gotten credit for. Lawmakers and students may want to take a fresh look at them as an affordable starting point on the road toward a college degree. (You can look up rates for each college.

The old graduation measures date to the late 1980’s, when Senator Bill Bradley championed legislation requiring colleges to report graduation rates for their basketball and football players — and, while they were at it, everyone else.

The measures were limited to students who enroll in college for the first time and take a full course load. This is a perfectly reasonable way to measure graduation rates at Mr. Bradley’s alma mater, Princeton, because nearly all undergraduates there start full-time, a few months after finishing high school.

The federal graduation rates also calculated the percentage of students who graduated within six years of enrollment. This made sense for four-year universities, where the vast majority of bachelor’s degrees are earned within six years.

The problem was that the graduation rate rules were then applied to the entire higher education system, including two-year community colleges, where nearly half of all undergraduates begin. The typical community college student isn’t a fresh-faced 18-year-old taking a full slate of courses.

Most community college students are nontraditional — adults, parents, people with full-time jobs, people returning to school after years away. They often enroll part-time, taking longer to graduate than the three years the Education Department used to gauge the success of people pursuing two-year degrees. Many community college students also transfer to four-year colleges before finishing a degree — a good result, but one that wasn’t counted for graduation rates.

So, following the committee’s lead, education officials made several changes. They included part-time and returning students in the calculation. They extended the time period to eight years. And they made separate calculations of how many students transferred before graduation, and how many were still in college.

Not all community colleges look better. San Jose City College in California, which graduates 19 percent of traditional students within three years, sees its graduation rate drop to 18 percent when part-time and returning students are included, even when the time frame is extended to eight years. Transfers improve the success rate only to 21 percent. Most students at San Jose City College are falling short. Many community colleges have room to improve.

Last modified: