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Federal panel recommends graduation, transfer rate

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Jack Buckley (right), commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, outlines the timeline for an "action plan" on the committee's report.

​A federal committee exploring the best ways to gauge student success at community colleges has signed off on its recommendations, which in part call on the U.S. Education Department to provide a single graduation-and-transfer rate for two-year college students. 

At its final meeting on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the 15-member Committee on Measures of Student Success (CMSS)—which includes several community college leaders and individuals who have served public two-year colleges—voted to approve its 26-page report. Among the recommendations: including part-time, degree-seeking students in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and collecting data on federal student aid recipients and students who are not academically ready for college.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) was especially pleased that the committee urged the Education Department to calculate and publicize a single completion rate that includes students who receive degrees and certificates, as well as those who subsequently enroll in another higher education institution. The combined graduation-and-transfer rate would vastly improve the student success rate, AACC said in a statement, noting that the combined rate is required by federal stature but has not been implemented.

“The community college completion rate would immediately increase to 40 percent from the current 22 percent if this single recommendation were adopted,” AACC said.

The Education Department plans to develop an “action plan” based on the recommendations by early January, according to Jack Buckley, commissioner of the department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Measures in sync

Committtee member Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, said the panel's recommendations would not be overbudensome and are consistent with the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), a system of voluntary measures developed by AACC to help college determine how well they are serving students and to help them improve. AACC, which has completed a pilot test of the measures, will open the initiative to all community colleges on Wednesday, when it releases its VFA manual.

In its statement, AACC agreed that the recommendations line up with VFA measurements.

“Both the CMSS and VFA support incorporating part-time students into the graduation measures (although as a discrete population), extending the time that students are given to count as completers…and disaggregating data into critical subpopulations,” the association said.

Areas of disagreement

However, AACC did not agree with the committee’s recommendations on tracking students in developmental education and student transfers. Defining developmental education students would be difficult, as more colleges are using new strategies to address developmental education, such as including remedial students in regular college-credit courses, according to two-year college advocates.

AACC also opposes tracking community college students who transfer to four-year institutions. It noted that transfers should not be limited to students who subsequently enroll in a four-year college or university.

“Lateral transfer to a two-year college is frequently a path to achieving education success,” the association said. “Furthermore, transfer to a four-year institution can often be into a two-year program, thus eliminating the significance of the distinction.”

A more accurate picture

Committee members noted that the recommendations may not be perfect, but they represent reasonable measures to better gauge student success at community colleges. Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College in Massachusetts, said the committee’s recommendations would help lift the “cloud of misunderstanding that has long maligned the nation’s community colleges.”

“This report far more accurately measures student success recognizing our incredibly diverse student bodies and the multiple missions of our institutions,” said Burton, who serves on the committee.

Burton told Community College Times that having such data would help refute critics, such as the Boston Foundation, which recently published a report slamming two-year colleges in Massachusetts in part because of their graduation rates. 

Several panelists noted that open-access, four-year institutions serving similar types of students as community colleges should also consider adapting the recommendations. Committee member Millie Garcia, president of California State University at Dominguez Hills—which is one such institution—said she would find such data helpful.

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