New success measures are better, but flawed

The U.S. Education Department’s plan to include part-time and transfer students in community college success rates is a major step forward, writes Thomas Bailey, who chaired the Committee on the Measure of Student Success and directs the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia. However, the new measures still won’t answer important questions about student success.

The plan will clarify who counts as a “degree-seeking” student and “improve the collection and analysis of data on students who receive federal financial aid,” Bailey notes. It also calls for improved state data systems to track students over time.

However, the federal action plan calculates a “graduation rate” that includes both students who earned a degree and those  who transferred without graduating. The two outcomes should not be lumped together, the CMSS recommended. “Transfer is a key outcome for community-college students, but it is not the same thing as graduating,” Bailey writes.

The Department of Education also rejected the CMSS’s suggestion that colleges disaggregate outcomes for community-college students who are deemed ill-prepared for college-level work and are therefore assigned to remedial education. While this might be difficult for colleges to do, it is important—not least because so many students fall into this category. The action plan should recognize the need to develop better information about the success of these students.

Many questions about student outcomes will not be answered by the new measures, Bailey predicts. To really understand student success, we’d need “a data system that would allow us to track individual students over time as they move around the country and among institutions.”  Because of privacy concerns, this is a controversial idea. But without individual tracking, “our measures of success will remain frustratingly incomplete.”

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