Data: Many community colleges are underappreciated
New study shows schools doing better than first thought.
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. colleges to report gradua- But colleges have long com- tion rates for their basketplained that the federal rates ball and football players — are inaccurate. Back in 2008, and, while they were at it, Congress directed the departeveryone else. ment to study the matter. The measures were lim-
Two years later (the wheels ited to students who enroll of government turn slowly), in college for the first time the 15-person Committee and take a full course load. on Measures of Student This is a perfectly reason- Success convened. I was a able way to measure gradumember. So was Wayne Bur- ation rates at Bradley’s alma ton, the president of North mater, Princeton, because Shore Community College nearly all undergraduates in Danvers, Massachusetts. there start full time, a few Over several months, Bur- months after finishing high ton argued forcefully that school. his college was a lot better The federal graduation than federal graduation rates rates also calculated the suggested. The committee percentage of students who decided he was on to some- graduated within six years thing and recommended that of enrollment. This made the Education Department sense for four-year univer- calculate graduation rates sities, where the vast major- in a new way. ity of bachelor’s degrees are
Six more years went by earned within six years. (there was a lot going on). The problem was that the Then this month, the Edu- graduation rate rules were cation Department released then applied to the entire the revised set of graduation higher education system, rates. It turns out that Bur- including two-year commuton, who has since retired nity colleges, where nearly from academia and joined half of all undergraduates New Hampshire’s citizen Leg- begin. The typical commuislature, was right all along. nity college student isn’t a
The new data suggests that fresh-faced 18-year-old taksome community colleges ing a full slate of courses. are doing a much better job Most community college of preparing students for students are nontraditional — future success than they’ve adults, parents, people with gotten credit for. Lawmakers full-time jobs, people return- and students may want to ing to school after years away. take a fresh look at them as They often enroll part time, an affordable starting point taking longer to graduate on the road toward a col- than the three years the Edu- lege degree. cation Department used to
The old graduation meagauge the success of people sures date to the late 1980s, pursuing two-year degrees. when Sen. Bill Bradley chamMany community college stupioned legislation requiring dents also transfer to four- age for-profit success rate to South University Online just 39 percent, compared remains accredited by the with 60 percent at commuSouthern Association of Colnity colleges. leges and Schools, the same
In other words, Gunderson body whose response to a had it backward. The new academic cheating scandal measures suggest that com- at the University of North munity colleges are much Carolina was to put the cammore successful than forpus on probation for a sinprofit colleges, not much less. gle year. They are also far cheaper By comparison, the graduand leave the average stuation rate of Georgia Northdent with much less debt. western Technical College,
Some for-profit results are a public school, increases catastrophic. Take South Unito 50 percent from 25 perversity, a Savannah, Geor- cent using the new meagia-based for-profit college. sures. Preparing students In 2008, it enrolled 12,233 to transfer falls to regional new students in its online public universities in Geordegree programs — more gia, instead of community than the University of Geor- colleges. Savannah State gia and Georgia State UniverUniversity has only a 33 persity combined. The old meacent eight-year graduation sures show South University rate. But include transfer Online with a mind-boggling students, and its success 2.4 percent graduation rate. rate rises to 81.2 percent. year colleges before finish- though that group included But, as with community colThe big picture shows that ing a degree — a good result, more than 710,000 part-time leges, most South University community colleges were but one that wasn’t counted students, who are often less Online students are nontradiunfairly tarred by the old for graduation rates. likely to graduate, extending tional. What happens when graduation rates. The results
So, following the committhe time frame to eight years all the students are counted produced by including all tee’s lead, education offiincreased the average grad- over a full eight years? students — and by looking cials made several changes. uation rate to 27 percent. Answer: The graduation over the right time frame They included part-time and But transfers are where rate increases to just 7.8 per- and accounting for transreturning students in the calcommunity colleges really cent. Add in transfers? 8.1 fers — suggest that many culation. They extended the shine. Some 510,000 stu- percent. Include those still prospective undergradutime period to eight years. dents transferred before enrolled? 8.5 percent. Three ates may benefit from givAnd they made separate calgraduating, bringing the years after leaving college, ing their local community culations of how many stu- combined graduation and only 23 percent of South college another look. And dents transferred before transfer rate up to 60 per- University Online students lawmakers who have typgraduation and how many cent. have paid back even a dollar ically underfunded comwere still in college. Including all of the part- on the principal of their stu- munity colleges may want
The results paint a very time and returning students dent loans, probably because to direct more resources to different picture of commuand looking over eight years nearly all of them failed to institutions that are doing nity college success. The old boosted North Shore’s grad- earn a degree. a difficult job better than measures, for example, capuation rate to 35 percent. Despite these results, we knew. tured about 620,000 stu- Another 19 percent transdents who began as first- ferred before graduation. time, full-time freshmen in Others were still working 2008. Only 20 percent grad- toward a degree. All told, uated from the community more than half of Burton’s college they started at within students had a successful outthree years. North Shore come — not, as the old rates Community College was typsuggested, fewer than 1 in 5. ical — its old graduation rate The for-profit picture is was 19 percent. not so rosy. The two-year
Such dire numbers programs Gunderson chose became fodder for people for comparison make up defending for-profit col- less than one-fifth of all forleges from heavy criticism profit enrollment. Four-year of their high cost and poor programs at for-profits have outcomes. In 2014, Steve much lower graduation rates Gunderson, head of the main than those of comparable for-profit college trade asso- public institutions. Comciation, wrote: “Our institu- bined, they had a 34 pertions have a 63% graduation cent graduation rate under rate in our two-year prothe old measures. And in grams, while our colleagues contrast with community at comparable public insticolleges, the new measures tutions — community colmake for-profits look worse, leges — have a graduation dropping their average gradrate of 20%.” uation rate to 32 percent.
The new graduation rates, For-profit students selby contrast, captured more dom bring their credits elsethan 1.5 million commuwhere. Including transfer nity college students. Even students increases the aver-
Students graduate at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn. New data suggest that some community colleges are doing a much better job of preparing students for future success.