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Student success committee mulls over its mission

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​A federal committee charged with recommending to the U.S. education secretary what measures would best gauge student success at community colleges used its first meeting this week to survey the landscape—from what should be measured to who would use the data.

The 15-member Committee on Measures of Student Success—which included several community college leaders and individuals who previously served public two-year colleges—tried to narrow its broad scope by agreeing to initially examine a few key areas, including transfers, developmental education, student learning and employment.

“This is a huge area,” said Thomas Bailey, committee chair and a professor of economics and education at Columbia University (New York). “We have to figure out what we can do most productively.”
 
Bailey, who established the Community College Research Center at Columbia, noted that there are other projects in development that parallel the committee’s mission, most notably the Voluntary Framework of Accountability—which is co-managed by the American Association of Community Colleges—and Complete to Compete by the National Governors Association (representatives from both organizations gave a presentation about their initiatives before the committee). The panel could look at those efforts and build on them, Bailey said.
 
A review of several initiatives done for the committee showed that they have several similar themes, such as measuring progress toward certain milestones, the time period of the measurement, analyzing the time it takes students to complete a degree, success of students not prepared for college-level work and students’ wages in jobs after college.
Click here to see video comments from some of the committee members about what they hope the panel will accomplish.
 The time frame of an assessment concerned Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College (Massachusetts), who would like a longer period of time to gauge the success of students in order to provide a more accurate assessment. Currently, measures for community colleges typically look at a two-year window, although most students take three to six years to complete a credential because they often juggle other responsibilities, such as work and families. 
 
Another question that the committee grappled with was who are the measurements for. Although students reviewing four-year institutions would benefit from data to compare universities, most students who attend a community college do so simply because it is close and it is less expensive than other institutions, several panelists noted.
 
The committee didn’t spend much time specifically discussing who is the intended audience of any new measures, but they did mention a wide array of interested stakeholders, especially lawmakers, policymakers, college administrators and researchers.
 
Community college leaders on the committee emphasized that any new measures should not overburden community colleges, many of which have limited resources and face increased enrollments while states cut their funding. Bailey agreed that the committee’s work should “balance ambition with reality.”
 
An eye on transfers
 
A main topic of conversation was capturing data pertaining to students transferring to four-year institutions. Currently, there is little data that gauges their successes.
 
“That’s a fundamental problem,” Bailey said. “If we can’t take into account transfers, this will really be distorted and inaccurate.”
 
Committee members generally agreed that current measures do not capture students’ mobility. Mildred Garcia, president of California State University at Dominguez Hills, noted that 60 percent of the students at her university are transfer students.
 
Some panelists suggested that any new measures should also include high school students dually enrolled in college courses and students who “swirl,” meaning they take courses at two- and four-year institutions simultaneously, especially during tough economic times when students enroll at less-expensive community colleges to save money.
 
“Often, classrooms are filled with those students,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and a former community college president.
 
Committee member Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, deputy director of MDRC, noted that she attended a four-year university, then took some classes at a community college and finished her degree at a four-year institution.
 
“That would not show up in any database,” she said. “No one will get any credit for that.”
 
Several panelists also emphasized the importance of including part-time students, students taking noncredit courses and other students who may be difficult to classify. Sharon Kristovich, a higher education consultant, gave an example of a student who is enrolled in a program and finds a job related to his field as a result of being in the program. That student may not complete the degree, but in his mind enrolling in the course was a success, she said.
 
Not ready for college
 
The committee also discussed developmental education, with several members saying stronger ties between K-12 and community colleges are needed. Burton noted that 65 percent of student entering his college are not ready for college-level work, yet federal data does not factor that when compiled to gauge how well the college serves students.
 
This led to a discussion about possibly assessing students when they enter and exit college to determine progress. Several committee members noted that while it would work for academic programs such as English and math, it would be much harder to do so with students who enter short-term vocation training.
 
The committee, which will have recommendations within 18 months, will meet again in February.
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