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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

What Counts as Community College Success? Better Ways to Answer the Question

by Susan Goldberger and Richard Kazis

“What does success mean to you?”

That’s the question leaders from the Virginia Community College System put to a roomful of students at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) last spring as part of a round of “listening sessions” meant to inform their ongoing strategic planning process.

After hearing heartbreaking tales of students dropping out and inspiring ones of degrees obtained, jobs won, and wages raised, there came a zinger from the back row: A young Indian immigrant stood up and described her achievements at NVCC, including the fact that she’d completed 67 credit hours and recently been accepted to nearby George Mason University, where she planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree in international business. Then she paused and said, “But according to your own definition in Dateline 2009 [the state community college system’s strategic plan], I am not a success.”

This young woman, who’d done her homework, was right. Dateline 2009 uses the federal definition of community college student success: the number of full-time, first-time undergraduates who earn a degree or certificate within 150 percent of the normal time to completion, or three years in the case of an associate’s degree. By that measure, this bright and motivated student was indeed a failure, because she’d decided to transfer without graduating. “Clearly, NVCC is the reason I’ve been successful in higher education—because of the work I’ve done, faculty involvement, school support, student clubs—and yet my own school doesn’t consider me a success,” she mused aloud, obviously frustrated. “If I’m not a success, then who is?”

It’s a great question, one that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking through during the last four years in the Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count initiative. Who counts as a success, how do colleges and states keep track of success, and how do they use data on student outcomes to help more students succeed. These are questions that colleges and states involved in this ambitious effort have been working hard to answer.

There must be a more accurate and useful method than the ones we currently use for measuring, evaluating, and comparing community college performance and student success. The current federal reporting system, designed with four-year institutions in mind but used to compare the performance of all postsecondary institutions, just doesn’t cut it.

Because federal data systems track only how many first-time, full-time students have graduated within three years, they are incomplete and often inaccurate measures of community college student success. In Achieving the Dream institutions, it is common for one-third to one-half of students to attend part-time; students who transfer to four-year institutions are also lost from the count. And because their focus is on graduation rates only, federal measures have limited value to institutions and states when it comes to identifying early on which students might be at risk of failure to complete their programs and achieve their goals.

If state policymakers and community college leaders are to have the tools they need to tackle the challenges that make it hard for so many community college students to succeed, they need information that can provide a more complete and nuanced picture of how different kinds of students are doing from the time they enter an institution to the time they leave. And measurement of student performance has to become not a compliance exercise with minimal relevance to planning and strategy but a tool for making decisions about where performance is weak and how outcomes can be improved.

States Seek Richer, More Usable Student Data
Good policies begin with good data. Achieving the Dream states and institutions have taken the courageous step of publicly recognizing the need for greater student success, and they have pledged to use data to identify problems and make improvements—for the sake of their students, their local and regional economies, and the nation. An important step in that direction is to develop a more accurate and useful way to measure community college student progress and success, so that policymakers can distinguish among groups of students that need special support, assess the impact of particular programs or instructional innovations on each of them, and monitor and interpret their progress against benchmarks.

To that end, a subset of six of the fifteen Achieving the Dream states—Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia—formed a cross-state data work group in 2006 to devise richer measures of community college student progress and success over time, with the goal of creating a better way to track outcomes for community college students and benchmark progress within and across states.