Using holistic measures to inform success metrics

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A new research project will examine how to better use data on community college students to help them succeed, including non-traditional measures such as holistic student services.

Ithaka S+R on Wednesday released the first report in a series as part of its Holistic Measures of Student Success (HMSS) project, which will study how student success has traditionally been defined and measured within the community college sector, and what new metrics and data collection processes can more holistically reflect the community college student experience.

The report looks at various well-known traditional metrics used to gauge student success, from federal measures used for IPEDS data, to measures used by organizations such as the National Student Clearinghouse and by the American Association of Community Colleges for its Voluntary Framework of Accountability.

Most colleges and universities, including public two-year institutions, use traditional outcome-based metrics — graduation rates, year-to-year retention and employment after completion — to gauge student success, the report says. Federal and state agencies as well as other organizations also use such traditional data for their trend and benchmark reports.

In the past few years, those groups have done a better job of trying to capture information about nontraditional community college students, such as part-time and transfer students who were often not included. However, traditional metrics still don’t capture the full experience of students at community colleges, who typically serve more students who are older, working, raising families and represent a larger share of students from historically underserved groups than at four-year colleges and universities, according to Ithaka S+R. It noted research that shows, as of this year, 47 percent of community college students are enrolled in non-credit-bearing courses and two-thirds are enrolled part-time.

“Traditional metrics for some time have not sufficiently considered the vast array of different types of community college students, nor their challenges, including those related to basic needs and well-being,” the report says.

What affects traditional metrics

Ithaka is examining how holistic metrics — such as information related to food and housing security, physical and mental health, engagement, childcare, technology and internet access, and transportation — can complement more traditional metrics to more clearly illustrate community college students’ experiences.

“If a student does not have proper nutrition or rest, or is constantly concerned with challenges outside of the classroom such as employment or caregiving, it not only can affect their grades in the short-term, but longer-term retention, time to graduation, and other barriers to completion as well,” says the report, which noted related research by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and other organizations.

Tracking holistic needs and challenges can provide colleges with insights on key factors that can improve or worsen traditional outcomes, the report says. 

“It therefore behooves college leaders to capture these measurements not only for the purpose of connecting students with the services and resources they need in the short-term, but to ultimately impact high-level statistics related to persistence and completion,” it adds.

Info during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified many challenges for community college and other at-risk students, says Melissa Blankstein, who with Christine Wolff-Eisenberg are leading the research at Ithaka S+R. In addition to barriers that college leaders were aware of, the crisis has brought on new hurdles due to the shift to remote learning at most colleges, such as access to laptops and the internet, and even finding a quiet place to study.

Such data can be especially helpful to colleges in gauging what their students need to stay enrolled, Wolff-Eisenberg says.

“A lot of community college leaders are grappling with what it’s going to take to enroll more students and to retain the students that they have,” she says. “How do you do it without having ways to assess the current need and the current demand for support services?”

New data, such as fall enrollment decreases at many community colleges, reflect how close many two-year college students are to a crisis, Wolff-Eisenberg says. Changes prompted by the pandemic, such as job security or available childcare or even being able to fix a car or computer, can easily force students to leave school.

“It has revealed how fragile so many people’s situations are,” she says.

Potential hurdles to collecting data

There already exists a robust set of holistic measures that colleges can use, but since they are not mandatory as other metrics, they are not used more broadly or standardized, Wolff-Eisenberg says.

“The problem isn’t that there is a lack of measurement techniques. The metrics are there, but there is more room for standardization and more adoption with the holistic metrics,” she says.

How to to make such information part of the broader national discussion is what Ithaka S+R will examine next. Researchers will study the barriers to adoption, Wolff-Eisenberg says. It could be a lack of capacity at colleges’ research offices, which are often thinly staffed and focused on collecting and sending government-required data, she says.

There also may be a strong belief that investing in holistic measurements won’t help to improve traditional outcomes that affect funding for institutions, Wolff-Eisenberg adds. However, it appears a growing number of community colleges are embracing efforts in holistic services, if not directly themselves, then by connecting students with local social services organizations.

Holistic data collection also seems to be less centralized, sometimes collected by the office of student affairs or by the academic affairs office, Wolff-Eisenberg says. That will be an area researchers hope a new survey will shed some light on. 

The next stages of Ithaka S+R’s project include interviews with institutional research directors and a national survey of provosts to better understand how traditional metrics are collected and defined within the community college sector. Subsequent reports will identify barriers to change and offer recommendations for action.

ECMC Foundation is supporting the project.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.