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Judging Community Colleges by a New Standard

A national committee led by TC's Thomas Bailey recommends taking a broader view of success
A national committee led by TC’s Thomas Bailey recommends taking a broader view of success

By Joe Levine

This past December, Thomas Bailey, George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College and director of TC’s Community College Research Center, handed  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a report urging the federal government to make major changes in how it tracks the success and productivity of community colleges.

The report was the work of a 15-member national Committee on Measures of Student Success, led by Bailey, which was created in the wake of the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  The Act required that two-year colleges report their completion rates to the federal government , but college officials argued that the required measures alone did not accurately reflect the achievements of the populations they served.  The committee led by Bailey was appointed to develop recommendations for more comprehensive measures of student success. 

Currently, the federal government gauges community college performance by calculating the percentage of first-time, full-time students that complete a degree or certificate in three or four years. By that measure, only 37 percent  of community college students complete their postsecondary education within four years. However, as the committee’s report indicates, the measure does not accurately capture the outcomes of the many two-year college students who attend part-time, take longer than four years to complete a degree, or transfer or re-enter the workforce without obtaining a community college degree. In addition, community colleges are open-access institutions and admit many students who need remediation and thus require more time to complete a degree.  As a result, the measures currently in place give a distorted picture of student success at many two-year colleges, adversely affecting funding levels and public support.

The committee, which spent a year studying how best to evaluate success in two-year colleges, recommends several alternative measures and changes in data collection to yield a more nuanced depiction of how well these institutions are achieving their mission.  The report urges the Department of Education to include, in their calculation of student success, students who transfer to a four-year college without a degree as well as those who earn a community college credential. It also recommends that colleges report graduation rates for distinct student cohorts, including part-time students, students who require remediation, and students receiving financial aid.

The report recommends that employment and learning outcomes be included as additional measures of college success. It proposes that the Department of Education provide incentives to states and colleges to improve access to student earnings data; it also proposes that colleges make public the measures of student learning that they already report to accreditors or other agencies. Finally, the report urges the creation of a federal “unit-record” database that would link student data from state to state and from college to careers, in order to make it easier for colleges and lawmakers to track long-term educational and employment outcomes for two-year college students. 

Bailey describes the report as the midpoint of a long road.  “Our recommendations represent a significant improvement over the current system, but more work is needed to improve the accuracy and usefulness of student success measures,” he said.

The Education Department has stated that it will create a plan based on the committee’s recommendations in early 2012. 

To read the report, please visit: http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/cmss-committee-report-final.pdf

Published Monday, Feb. 27, 2012


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