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A clearer picture of student success

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​New federal data support what community colleges have long argued: A broader window to track their enrolled students will show they are more successful than is generally thought.

Just expanding the period of time that colleges track their students as they work toward completion shows significant improvements in graduation and completion rates. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), graduation rates of full-time, first-time students in 2006 increased from 13 percent to 28 percent at community college when the time students were tracked was doubled to four years. (Graduation rates at four-year and less-than-two-year institutions showed similar increases when tracking time was doubled.)

A federal commission recently recommended that federal data on community college students should also include part-time students and transfer students up to double the normal time to completion. This is to take into account that many two-year college students also balance work and families in addition to school work, and they also enroll in different institutions as they work toward their academic and career goals.

“The rates become more accurate when we consider the large proportion of community college students who may begin college enrolled full time and then enroll part time and who transfer to other institutions,” said Christopher Mullin, program director for policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Currently, the U.S. Education Department does not report transfer information on college students, but it does collect the data. A review of the data by AACC indicates that 18 percent of community college students transfer to another institution when they are tracked over three years rather than over the traditional two-year period. Mullin said that he expects the transfer rate would be even greater  if  data following students over four years were available.

Incorporating this information into a profile of students’ progress and completion would provide a sharper picture of student success at community colleges, according to education experts.

"Combining the 28 percent graduation rate with  a minimum transfer rate of 18 percent results in a minimum completion rate of 46 percent,” Mullin said. “This suggests that nearly half of first-time students who start full-time at a community college have made substantial progress."

Race and gender

The NCES report broke down graduation rates according to race and gender, among other categories. Based on full-time, first-time students, white men and women had higher graduation rates (about 25 percent), followed by Hispanics/Latinos (about 20 percent) and blacks (about 15 percent). Differences among men and women and races were greater at public four-year institutions: Whites (57 percent), Hispanics/Latinos (44 percent) and black (36 percent). The difference among genders at four-year colleges was more pronounced, with women graduating at significantly higher rates. 

Revenue and expenses

The NCES report looked at other college data, including revenues and expenses. At public four-year institutions, 19 percent of operating revenue came from tuition and fees with grants and contracts providing 16 percent. At public two-year colleges, tuition and fees accounted for 16 percent of operating revenues, with 8 percent coming from grants and contracts.

Regarding expenses, instruction accounted for 42 percent of total expenses at community colleges, compared to 30 percent at public four-year institutions. Community colleges also spent a higher percentage of their expenses on scholarships and fellowships (12 percent compared to 4 percent), and nearly double in percentage on student services (10 percent compared to 5 percent) and institutional support (16 percent compared to 9 percent) than four-year colleges.

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