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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

The six-state work group designed and tested performance measures that incorporate several key changes from current federal reporting requirements (see Table 1). The new measures:

• Include part-time students. • Extend the time frame for tracking outcomes from three years after initial enrollment to six years. • Register as successful students who transfer to a four-year institution before graduation. • Count as successful students who are still enrolled after six years and have made substantial progress towards a degree (i.e., completed at least 30 college credits).

Table 1: Comparing Community College Performance Measures

In addition, the group disaggregated the performance of younger and older students and of part-time and full-time students to assess variations in the groups’ performance and to allow for comparisons between states and institutions with different demographic profiles. The states decided that these more nuanced subgroup analyses are critical to assessing where improvement efforts should be targeted and how policy can steer institutions toward new priorities. (A summary of the work of this group can be found in Test Drive, an Achieving the Dream policy brief published by Jobs for the Future that can be downloaded at

Using data from their community college systems, each state tracked all first-time certificate and degree-seeking community college students for five or six years from their initial date of enrollment, building institutional research infrastructure and capacity along the way. The results of this nuanced approach yielded more accurate—and ultimately, more useful—information about community college student performance, as well as about individual state systems and policies.

Using the new metrics, the percentage of students in each state with successful outcomes rose compared to the federal reporting. However, there was significant variation across states, ranging from 33 percent in Connecticut to 51 percent in Texas. There was also significant variation in specific outcomes achieved (See Table 2) For example, Ohio and Florida had associate degree completion rates of 23 percent and 22 percent, respectively, compared to rates of 9 percent in Connecticut and 12 percent in Texas. On the other hand, Texas had the highest percentage of students transferring to four-year institutions prior to earning an award in Texas (25%) while Florida and Ohio had the lowest rates (7% and 6%).

Table 2: Student Success Rate Using State Workgroup Method

While still not a complete picture of community college students, this method provides more robust information about a much larger group of students and provides states and institutions with a way to analyze, discuss, and address challenges that the data make transparent and define more precisely.

With Better Data Come Better Questions—and Strategies
Pushing the time frame for reporting out to six years, which states recommended after comparing federal three-year graduation rates with data that tracked students for a much longer time, provided a more accurate analysis of who ultimately graduates and who does not and resulted in a substantial boost in student success rates. This was particularly true for part-time students, who often come and go from school as work, family, and finances allow, and for those who start in developmental education, who obviously need more time to hone basic skills and get through school. As illustrated in Table 3, the six-year graduation rate for all students in Florida who began full-time was almost double the three-year rate. And for those who began part-time, six-year success rates were more than double the three-year rates.

But the goal of more accurate reporting is not to make community colleges feel better about their performance. In fact, when the Achieving the Dream Work Group states took a close look at the outcomes for their institutions’ part-time students and older, working students, real challenges came into stark relief. In the six participating pilot states, the data showed that as many as 36 to 49 percent of students began their college careers part-time and that a disproportionate number of low-income students attend part-time. Moreover, success rates for part-time students were significantly lower than for their full-time counterparts in five of the six states: part-time students’ success rates were at least 14 percentage points lower that those for full-time students (see Table 4). (The exception was Texas, where full-time and part-time students had similar rates: 54 percent of full-time students and 48 percent of part-time students succeeded.)

Table 3: Comparison of Three-Year and Six-Year Graduation Rates in Florida

Table 4: Success Rate by Full-Time/Part-Time Enrollment