Associate degree is key step to bachelor’s

Community college students who earn a transfer-oriented associate degree are much more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than similar students who transferred with 50 to 90 credits but no degree, concludes a Community College Research Center study.

However, transfer students who’d earned an applied science associate degree, which is designed for direct entry into the workforce, were less likely to complete a four-year degree than no-degree transfers.

Nationally, nearly two thirds of community college students who transfer to four-year colleges do so without first earning an associate degree. And while over 80 percent of all entering community colleges indicate their intention to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 15 percent end up doing so within six years.

Associate-degree transfers are guaranteed full “credit capture” in the state that was studied. Transfers with no degree may have been denied credit for some of their community college courses. That costs students time and money and lowers the odds of completion.

Forty-two percent of transfer students lost at least 10 percent—and sometimes much more—of their community college credits, a recent CUNY study found. Students who were able to transfer 90 percent or more of their credits were two and half times as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree as students who transferred less than half their credits.

“Encouraging students to earn an associate degree before they transfer, coupled with state policies that guarantee credit transfer for associate degree holders, could significantly increase national rates of bachelor degree completion,” CCRC researchers concluded.

More earn degrees, but 60% goal is uncertain

More Americans are earning college degrees, but the attainment rate must increase to meet the Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025, a new report shows. Lumina wants 60 percent of adults to hold a “high-quality” degree, certificate or other postsecondary credential by 2025.

Currently, 39.4 percent of working-age adults have earned a two-year or four-year degree. Another 5.2 percent hold a “certificate of significant economic value,” estimates the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

If current trends continue, 49 percent will be college graduates by 2025.

Still, Lumina is thinking positive:  ”Not only are postsecondary attainment rates generally increasing, the rate of that increase is rising as well,” says the report. If the current rate of increase continues, 56 percent of working-age adults will hold a degree or other credential by 2025;  young adults will hit 60 percent.

“We’re seeing momentum,” Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina’s president, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

College enrollment has dipped. The high school population is smaller and “the modest recovery of the job market” is reducing the number of adult students.  ”We have to focus on adults because it is hard to conceive of a way to get to the goal just by focusing on traditional students,” Merisotis said.

The biggest challenge, however, is that higher education has to do a better job of educating the nation’s underserved minority students, as well as low-income and first-generation students, Mr. Merisotis said.

In particular, he said, colleges must improve completion rates among Hispanic and African-American students, who graduate at much lower rates than do their white and Asian-American peers.

While 59 percent of Asian-American adults and nearly 44 percent of whites hold a college degree, only 28 percent of black adults and about 20 percent of Hispanics are college graduates, according to Census figures. 

While more Hispanics are enrolling college, completion rates are low. If success rates don’t improve, the overall attainment rate could decline to less than 38 percent by 2025.

Latinos narrow graduation gap

The Latino college completion gap is narrowing for full-time students, reports Excelencia in Education in a new report. The gap fell from 14 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2014: 41 percent of Latinos graduate in 150 percent of the normal time compared to 50 percent of all first-time, full-time college students.

However, almost half of Latino college students are enrolled part-time. Their completion rates remain very low.

Miami Dade College, South Texas College, El Paso Community College, East Los Angeles College and Florida International College enroll the most Latino students. “Four of the top five are predominantly community colleges,” said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president of policy at Excelencia.

Miami Dade, El Paso and South Texas also rank in the top five for awarding associate degrees to Latinos, along with Valencia College and University of Phoenix Online. “We are seeing the closure in the achievement gaps in some states, but not all,” said Santiago.

ASSOCIATE DEGREES: Top 5 Institutions Awarding to Hispanics, 2011-12

Rank Institution State Sector Grand Total Hispanic Total % Hispanic
1 Miami Dade College FL 4yr Public 11,959 7,958 67
2 El Paso Community College TX 2yr Public 3,790 3,244 86
3 University of Phoenix – Online 4yr Private For-Profit 39,341 2,424 6
4 South Texas College TX 4yr Public 2,292 2,138 93
5 Valencia College FL 4yr Public 7,974 2,129 27

California, which has the highest numbers of Latino students, lags in graduating them: Only 15 percent of the state’s Latino students completed a degree or certificate in 2010-11.  “Why does California, the state with the largest Latino population in the nation, not have a single college break into the top five nationally for awarding degrees to Latinos?” asked Santiago.

Florida does much better in enrolling — and graduating — Latinos.

Latinos make up 22 percent of K-12 students and 17 percent of the population, reports Excelencia.  The median age for Latinos is 27, compared to 42 for non-Hispanic whites.

Twenty percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher compared to 36 percent of all adults.

‘College premium’ is exaggerated

The “college premium” has been exaggerated by high-profile studies, write Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad in The Atlantic. So has the payoff for majoring in a STEM field.

Smarter people are more likely to earn a college degree and to major in engineering, science and math, they write.

Only 58 percent of new college students who began in 2004 had graduated six years later, according to federal data. “Dropout rates are even higher at less selective colleges, whose students are presumably most on the margin between attending college following high school and entering the workforce.”

Calculating returns to education only for those who attend college and graduate is like measuring stock returns for Google while ignoring those for General Motors.

High school students who go on to college are quite different from those go directly to the workforce, they write.

(The collegebound) took a more rigorous high school curriculum, scored better on tests of reading and math, came from higher-income families, were in better physical and mental health, and were less likely to have been arrested. These are all correlated with higher earnings regardless of whether a person attends college . . .

Controlling for “both the risk of not graduating from college and differing personal characteristics” cuts the “earnings boost attributable to college attendance” in half, write Biggs and Haddad.

Graduates in technical fields earn significantly more than graduates in “softer” majors, studies have shown. “High school graduates aiming for high-earning majors such as engineering enter college with higher average SAT scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while those aiming for lower-paying majors have lower average SAT scores,” write Biggs and Haddad. “High-paying jobs also entail longer work hours.”

Half of vets complete a degree or certificate

Half of veterans who used the GI Bill completed a vocational credential or college degree from 2002 through 2013, according to research released by the Student Veterans of America. About one in three of the veterans earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The veterans’ 51.7 percent completion rate is close to the six-year graduation rate for younger, non-veterans, 56.1 percent. However, the rates aren’t directly comparable since the veterans’ survey included vocational certificates and job training and gave vets 10 years to reach completion.”

Still, “researchers say veterans appear to be doing better than other so-called non-traditional students — those who delay attending college, enroll part-time or have children, factors common with many current veterans,” reports USA Today. Completion rates are much lower for older students.

“Looking at the obstacles and the issues that student vets have to deal with. … I think we’re doing quite well,” says D. Wayne Robinson, a former Army command sergeant major and now president and CEO of Student Veterans of America.

. . . Studies have shown that about half of those veterans eligible for the GI Bill after World War II obtained a training certificate or college education, as did about two-thirds of Vietnam veterans, according to a 1976 VA study.

Veterans often pursue degrees in business, social sciences, homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting, and computer and information services, the survey found.

Seventy-nine percent of veterans start at a public college or university, notes Ed Central. Most choose a community college. The completion rate was 50.8 percent for enrollees in public schools, 63.8 percent for private nonprofits and 44.9 percent for for-profit colleges.

The National Student Clearinghouse analyzed nearly 800,000 college records.

Lost credits hurt transfer students

Lost credits make it difficult for community college transfers to earn a bachelor’s degree, concludes a new City University of New York study. The more credits earned but rejected by the four-year institution, the less likely a transfer will graduate.

Students who start at a community college with hopes of earning a bachelor’s are less likely to reach their goal than similar students who start at a four-year college or university. The study estimates a 17 percent graduation gap for full-time, traditional-age students. The usual suspects — inadequate academic preparation and community colleges’ vocational emphasis — aren’t the primary factors, the authors write. Community college students don’t “cool out” on their desire for a bachelor’s degree. Nor is it true that community college students receive lower aid levels after transfer. For the most part, it’s the lost credits, the CUNY study concludes.

Six-year outcomes by starting institution type (Source: National Student Clearinghouse)

Fifty-four percent of community college transfers would earn a bachelor’s degree, if not for lost academic credits, researchers estimate. Currently, only 45 percent complete a four-year degree in four years.

“Loss of credits is a tax on transfer students,” CUNY researcher David Monaghan said.

Eighty-one percent of community college students say they plan to transfer and earn a four-year degree. But only 42 percent of BA-intending students actually transfer.

The average full-time student takes 3.8 years to earn a two-year degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year degree, estimates Complete College America. The average student earns 80 credits for an associate degree that requires 60 and 136.5 for a 120-degree bachelor’s degree.

Retaking courses costs time and money, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed

“About 14 percent of transfer students in the study essentially began anew after transferring,” according to the paper. Fewer than 10 percent of their community college credits were accepted. A majority — 58 percent — transferred 90 percent or more of their credits. The remaining 28 percent lost between 10 and 89 percent of their credits.

To avoid transfer hassles, community colleges in more than 20 states now offer four-year degrees, typically in vocational fields. California legislators are considering the option for the state’s 112 community colleges.

A new report on college completion from the National Student Clearinghouse estimates that 36.5 percent of students who start at community college will complete an associate degree in six years, while 15 percent will complete a four-year degree. Completion rates are much higher for exclusively full-time students and traditional-age students.

CC start may raise odds of completion

Some students who want a four-year degree raise the odds of success by starting at a community college, concludes Understanding the College Dropout Population, a Calder working paper by Erin Dunlop Velez of the American Institutes of Research. That’s especially true of those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Conventional wisdom says starting at community college lowers success odds, notes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report. In 2009, Bridget Terry Long and Michal Kurlaender estimated students who began at community colleges were 14.5 percent less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees within 9 years compared to similar students who started at four-year institutions.

“About 70 percent of four- year college drop-outs have a higher predicted probability of success beginning at a four-year college,” Velez writes.  “But for the other 30% of the sample, their predicted probability of bachelor’s degree attainment would have been higher had they started at a two-year college. This is particularly true for first-generation college students, about 40% of which would have been more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree had they begun at a two-year college.”

Indiana: 28% earn credential in 6 years

IndianaCompletion rates are low at Indiana’s public two-year colleges, reports the state Commission for Higher Education. The six-year completion rate for students seeking certificates or degrees is 28.2 percent. That includes transfers and students who earned a lower-level credential than originally sought.

Two-year public colleges spend an average of $31,369 for each degree produced, half the per-degree cost of four-year colleges and universities.

At Ivy Tech, the state community college system, the cost per degree is $30,120. Ivy Tech’s six-year completion rate — any credential at any campus — is 27.7 percent for full-time students and 20.8 percent for part-timers.

Only 15.7 percent of blacks who start at Ivy Tech have earned a credential within six years, compared to 26.8 percent of Hispanics, 29.6 percent of whites and 35.7 percent of Asians.

At Indiana’s four-year colleges and universities, the six-year completion rate is 68.6 percent. That includes any degree at any campus.

Two-year colleges focus on advising

Ohio community colleges are trying to strengthen counseling to lower the high dropout rate, reports NPR’s StateImpact Ohio

“College is an intimidating place for students, particularly for first generation students or returning students who make up a lot of our community college population,” says Suzanne Cox, a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College.

More than 60 percent of Tri-C students attend part-time.  Cox says students tend to be older than traditional college students, and many juggle school with a full time job and caring for their children or parents.

. . .  “Having that connection with someone who cares, who says I’m here for you, I’ll encourage you.  If you need me, here’s my card, just that simple act of encouraging someone is really, really important,” Cox says.

But as much as she tries, Cox says she doesn’t always have much time to build a relationship with every student she advises.  Students are required to attend orientation and see a counselor when they first enroll, but after that it’s up to them to seek out academic advising when they need it. Some may see an advisor only once during their entire college experience.

Only 20 percent of first time, full time, two-year college students complete an associate’s degree within three years. Community colleges are trying to raise graduation rates, says Melinda Mechur Karp, a researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “Advising is a really critical component.”

Counseling centers at community colleges “don’t have enough staff and they don’t have enough funds,” Karp says. The median caseload is 441 students per counselor, according to a 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association.

Some two-year colleges are “turning to online academic program planning tools that will send a red flag to an advisor when a student is veering off track,” reports State Impact Ohio. Many require new students to attend orientation or a “college success” class.

CC leaders question college ratings plan

Dubious about President Obama’s plan to rate colleges’ value, community college leaders grilled U.S. Education officials at the Community College National Legislative Summit, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Linking college ratings to federal aid raises will be challenging, admitted Jeff Appel, a deputy undersecretary of education.

Under Mr. Obama’s plan, colleges that performed well in the ratings would be rewarded with additional federal dollars while colleges that performed poorly would lose some aid. Skeptics fear such a system would punish colleges that serve many low-income and minority students and would encourage open-access institutions to tighten their entrance criteria or dumb down their standards.

More federal dollars could flow to selective colleges with wealthier students said Peter L. Mora, president of Atlantic Cape Community College, in New Jersey.

Pauline T. Jaske, board chair of Waukesha County Technical College, in Wisconsin, suggested that the administration place less emphasis on a college’s graduation rate and more on whether its students achieve the goals they came to college with—transferring to a four-year institution, earning a job promotion, or simply gaining additional skills. “If they reached that goal, that’s a success,” she argued.

Mr. Appel said the department was considering using the results of alumni surveys as a measure in its ratings, saying satisfaction scores could be “potentially useful” to consumers.

Michele Bresso, associate vice president for government relations at Kern County Community College, in California, asked for relief from redundant and sometimes conflicting reporting requirements. 

There may be streamlining opportunities, said Mr. Appel, despite the “triad” of federal, state and accreditor oversight.

The White House plans to release a draft rating system in the spring and publish the first ratings in the 2014-15 academic year. Then the president will ask Congress to link federal aid to the ratings. 

The “ambitious timeline” is troubling, said Karin M. Hilgersom, president of Sullivan County Community College, in New York. She asked how the administration would get results that aren’t “garbage in and garbage out,” given the shortcomings of federal outcomes data.

Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and designer of its college rankings, also questioned the Obama plan at a federal symposium, reports the Washington Post. Who’s in charge? he asked. How will decisions be reviewed?

How should community colleges be rated when many of their students are not really seeking degrees but instead are aiming for certificates or just taking a couple of random classes? And of those who are seeking degrees, many transfer to four-year schools without getting an associate’s degree. Shouldn’t that be considered a success? If so, how will the government track it?

If outcomes are not properly measured, “things start to get more dicey for community colleges,”said Patrick Perry, a vice chancellor of California’s huge community college system.