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The College Board has launched a website that provides quick and easy access to data that measure the success of community college students, from enrollment to college completion and career readiness.
The Completion Arch—developed by the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center and MPR Associates—pulls together national, state and initiative data on student progress and success. College Board and MPR officials said the goal of the one-stop database is to portray the complexity of community colleges and to help state and federal lawmakers, policymakers, accrediting agencies, media and others develop a comprehensive understanding of who they serve and what they do.
In developing the free online tool, the College Board and MPR identified a common set of metrics developed by prominent initiatives, organizations and researchers. It pooled more than 500 indicators on student progress and success from sources such as the U.S. Department of Education, the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), Achieving the Dream and the Community College Research Center, to name a few.
The metrics are organized into five key areas:
Each area includes several measures. For example, the tool includes fall enrollment and unduplicated annual enrollment, which are the two ways most community college report enrollment.
Some areas have more measures. Under transfer and completion, the tool includes: graduation rates; number of degrees and certificates awarded; completion rates within six years; persistence without a degree after six years; time to degree; credits to degree; and near program completion after six years.
When pulling up data on specific measures, the tool notes the source of the data, what is measured, who is counted, what it tells about community colleges and why it’s important. For the measure on six-year completion rates, the tool pools data from the U.S. Education Department and Complete College America, noting that the data are important because, in part, they illustrate the number of community college students who have finished a curriculum that prepared them to transfer to a four-year institution and that these students should be considered completers. Community colleges argue that they usually don’t get credit for preparing students to transfer to a baccalaureate institution.
Gathering what’s already available
College Board officials stressed that the Completion Arch is not a new initiative, but rather a tool that gathers and presents information that is already publicly available.
“We’re trying to aid community colleges to recognize their own worth and to help others recognize their worth, too,” said Ronald Williams, vice president of the College Board and a member of the AACC board of directors.
The data being aggregated will not be perfect, as different organizations and states have different definitions of measures, Williams said. But as colleges, policymakers, foundations and other stakeholders use the tool, it should become evident which measures are most helpful in defining student success, he said.
For Kent Phillippe, AACC’s associate vice president for research and student success and the association’s lead on VFA, it is important that the new online tool includes data on progress. Most measures focus on outcomes and completion, but it’s just as important to track students who are “in the pipeline” and taking courses and programs geared toward their goal, he said. Such data are valuable in helping colleges focus their resources on areas that need improvement to help students reach their goals.
The Completion Arch website will be updated at least twice a year, and new metrics will be added when they are available.
Putting it in perspective
In launching the online tool, the College Board hosted a blue-ribbon panel discussion regarding community colleges, covering a range of issues, from the challenges they face to which metrics are most appropriate in gauging student success.
Community college advocates said the Completion Arch tool can play an important role in highlighting promising practices but also in determining areas that need improvement. AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus noted the importance of using data to tell the community college story, from the institutions' successes to its current challenges and prospective solutions, which were outlined in AACC’s new report “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future.”
Other panel members addressed the need to work more closely with K-12 and universities as well as businesses, which was also noted in the AACC report. Kenneth Ender, president of Harper College in Illinois, said community college leaders need to be “on a first-name basis” with local K-12 superintendents to ensure high school seniors are ready for college-level work and to help students get a jump on college by earning college credits while still in high school.
“We have to think really differently about this,” he said.
The online tool should fit in with several national initiatives to improve student success and help community college advocates make their case to states and other prospective funders for more funding. On the same day the tool was launched, Santa Monica College in California released a new report showing how cuts in state funding have drastically cut summer classes at 15 California community colleges over the past four years. Since summer 2008, the number of summer courses offered at these colleges has dropped two-thirds—roughly 6,000 teaching assignments and 168,000 classroom seats.
The Completion Arch tool can help community colleges show their value to state leaders, especially in terms of workforce development, in order to counter funding cuts, said Hans L’Orange, vice president for research and informational resources at the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Jobs are the top concern for lawmakers and if community colleges can show them how integral two-year colleges are to workforce development and jobs, state officials will pay attention, he said.
“There’s always money for priority No. 1,” L’Orange said.
At the same time college leaders are arguing for increased public funding, they also must think more innovatively regarding how to use the funds they have. Santa Rosa Junior College in California is examining its student aid program, especially how to help students who are on the brink of completion but run into financial problems that are preventing them for finishing, noted Frank Chong, the college’s new president, who previously served at the U.S. Department of Education.
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