Including transfers, completion numbers rise

New data that includes transfers shows more students are completing degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Fifty-four percent of students complete a degree in six years — including 12 percent who transferred.  In all, 22 percent of students earn a degree from a different college than the one where they started, the report found. Three-quarters of full-time students complete college within six years.

The clearinghouse tracked 94 percent of college students. U.S. Education Department data is less complete, notes Inside Higher Ed.

In contrast to the newly released data, the federal government’s tabulations of degree production and graduation rates generally do not capture transfer or other student “swirl” factors. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) also misses half of all students with institution-level data based only on first-time, full-time students.

Community college completion rates look much better in the new analysis.

“The clearinghouse report both provides a significantly more accurate and much more positive picture of community college completion than the graduation rates from the U.S. Department of Education,” said David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Twenty-four percent of community college students complete at the same college within six years, but that rises to 36 percent when students who graduate elsewhere are included.  Another 20 percent of students are still enrolled in college.

‘Swirlers’ may run out of Pell eligibility

“Swirling” — multiple transfers between two-year and four-year colleges — is increasingly common in higher education, notes Inside Higher Ed. Swirlers risk running out of eligibility for Pell Grants under new rules, which limit students to 12 semesters.

Trident Technical College, in South Carolina, students who changed programs multiple times, or who enrolled after pursuing, but not earning, a degree at a for-profit college are among those who are most likely to have run out of eligibility, said Meg Howle, the college’s vice president for advancement.

About 540 of the college’s 22,748 students lost their Pell Grant eligibility and still returned this fall, Howle said. The college does not know how many lost eligibility and dropped out as a result.

Students who had been enrolled in college before but still needed remedial courses were also affected, because those students had used up more of their Pell Grant eligibility without earning credits that count toward a degree, Howle said.

Students who start at community colleges and transfer to four-year universities could run out of time, said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

About 4 percent of California State University students lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the 12-semester cap, said Michael Uhlenkamp, director of media relations. At Sacramento State University, some brand-new transfer students already had received 12 semesters of Pell aid, said Edward Mills, associate vice president for enrollment management. Some had lingered at community colleges. Others had “swirled” for too long.

From community college to a STEM bachelor’s

Universities are turning to community colleges in the search for potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students who are black, Hispanic or female, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Using a $2.6 million Gates Foundation grant, the University of Maryland Baltimore County will pilot a national model for increasing the number of community college students who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. The City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago wil use a Kresge Foundation grant to help minority males transfer and earn STEM bachelor’s degrees. Mount Holyoke College is helping female community college students earn a STEM bachelor’s, with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Transfer students in STEM fields face the same problems any community college transfer might face: courses that don’t line up, credits that don’t transfer, trouble adjusting to the class size or format, a lack of a community feeling. Those problems, however, are often more acute for STEM students. After all, 500-person lecture classes are more common in science departments, and requirements are often more stringent in those fields, too; an engineering student who takes the wrong class in his first year at community college will likely have a harder time finishing a bachelor of science degree in four years than an English student would have with a bachelor of arts.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard, a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke, interviewed 30 Massachusetts community college students in STEM fields before and after they transferred to a four-year institution. Twenty-six transferred and 22 persisted in STEM majors after the first semester.

Most of the students reported positive feelings about their community college experiences, citing inspiring professors, peer support, and helpful advising as reasons for their success. Once the students got to their four-year colleges, however, sentiment turned negative. Most students reported struggling in at least one course, and said that compared to their community college courses, the four-year classes often moved at a faster pace, were more difficult, and provided less support. The content in the courses didn’t always line up, either. One student said she had taken the first semester of organic chemistry at her community college, but the second semester course at her four-year college assumed knowledge of things she hadn’t learned, so even though she had earned credit for the first semester of organic chemistry, she ended up having to take it over again.

Mount Holyoke’s STEM transfer initiative provides scholarships, advising and mentoring to help transfers complete a STEM degree. Students meet with science faculty members regularly and go through a special orientation.

What’s the cost of a community college degree?

What’s the cost of a community college degree? Clive Belfield of the Community College Research Center estimates the median average cost per associate degree in 2008 to be $45,900 at academic community colleges and $36,950 at vocational colleges. “Even as graduation rates have flat-lined, the real costs of college are significantly lower in 2008 than in 1987,” the study concludes.

Evaluating colleges’ productivity is complicated by a variety of factors, including how to assess transfers and how to account for unprepared students.

The Completion Arch, a new project by College Board, will present a variety of indicators of student progress and success.

 

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.”

Changing the grad rate calculus

Community college success rates are expected to rise significantly when the Education Department completes its plan to include part-time and transfer students, notes Jennifer González in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Currently, students who transfer to a four-year institution before completing an associate degree are considered dropouts. But counting part-timers and transfers could be tricky. The department will have to decide how many credits make a part-time student or a “substantially prepared” transfer.

The department will also have to sort out how long those students will be tracked in order to determine whether they graduate. Will it be 150 percent of the conventional time to graduation (six years) or perhaps 200 percent of the time (eight years)?

Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the key “lies in the quality of institutional records and databases, and whether the registrars and institutional research can straighten out some of the sloppiness that has accumulated below the surface of the currently simplistic graduation-rate survey reporting.”

“Making sure everybody can do it the same way, and with consistent results,” he says, “will take a few years.”

State data systems track students who transfer to in-state public universities, but not students who go out of state or choose a private college. More than a quarter of all transfers cross state lines.

AACC: Grad rates aren’t that bad

Community colleges are working to improve graduation rates and don’t need any help from the American Enterprise Institute, writes the American Association of Community Colleges in response to an AEI report on the high cost of low graduation rates.  “The so-called analysis is a pseudo-academic attack on community colleges,” writes the AACC in a statement.

AEI looks at three-year graduation rates (22.1 percent), instead of  “more accurate” four-year rates (27.6 percent), AACC writes. And many students who leave college are “stop-outs” rather than drop-outs.  “Federal data indicate that 62 percent of those who leave a community college in the first year re-enroll at an institution of higher education within the next five years.”

The report assumes that those who leave a community college earn the same as high school diploma holders, rather than those who have “some college.” By definition, students who start and leave a community college have attained “some college.” In 2011, median weekly earnings for high school graduates were $638 as compared to $719 for those with “some college.” The unemployment rate was also 0.7% lower for those with “some college.”

In addition, the AEI report “dramatically understates” community college transfers and their success rates, AACC charges.

Here’s how to track students’ progress

Nobody knows the college graduation rate  because we’re unwilling to track individual students, writes Andrew Gillen, research director for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Federal data counts only first-time, full-time students and counts most transfers as dropouts, even though 38 percent of students are part-timers, one third transfer and others drop out and back in.

The fact that we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on higher education and can’t determine something as basic as a national graduation rate is a dereliction of duty.

Student Unit Records — databases that assign each student an individual number — would make it possible to calculate an accurate, meaningful graduation rate, Gillen writes.

Matching educational records from a SUR with earnings data from the IRS would allow for accurate employment outcomes to be published for each college and program. Such information would help students make better decisions which would in turn help discipline and focus colleges.

Bad colleges oppose SURs: Accurate data would take away their excuses, writes Gillen. Good colleges are opposed too, “terrified of being compared to other schools on something like value-added earnings.”

Privacy advocates also oppose tracking students, but “convincing methods of safeguarding privacy while implementing a SUR have been developed, Gillen writes.

One third of students transfer, often in ‘reverse’

One-third of college students switch institutions at least once before earning a degree, says a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, ”Transfer and Mobility. That doesn’t include community college students who earned an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution.

“Reverse transfers” from four-year to two-year schools are common, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Among students who transfer from four-year public institutions, more than half (51.9 percent) transfer “in reverse,” to two-year public institutions. And among students who transfer from two-year public colleges, more than a third (37.6 percent) move laterally, to other two-year public colleges. That is nearly as many as transfer from two-year to four-year public institutions: 41.2 percent.

From private colleges—both nonprofit and for-profit—many students also leave for public two-year colleges. From nonprofit colleges, 41.4 percent of transfers go to two-year institutions, and from for-profits, 43.9 percent do.

The report looks at full- and part-time students over a five-year period beginning in 2006. Transfer rates peak in students’ second year.

With so many transfers, federal graduation data is badly askew, college officials point out. Students who transfer before completing a degree are counted as dropouts.

Texas billboards hit low graduation rates

8% of DCCCD students graduate in 3 yrs. Is that fair to the students? asks the Texas Association of Business in a billboard hitting the Dallas County Community College District. In October, the group criticized Austin Community College for a 4 percent graduation rate on a billboard asking: “Is that a good use of tax $?”

“Ouch,” as Inside Higher Ed puts it.

Austin Community College’s completion-and-transfer rate is 43 percent in three years, responds President Richard Rhodes. He notes the statistics cover only first-time, full-time students, who make up 5.5 percent of enrollment. (However, graduation rates are higher for this group than for older and part-time students.)

The billboard shows a “fundamental lack of understanding about the mission of community colleges and who our students are,” (pdf) responded Wright L. Lassiter Jr., chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, in a letter to Hammond. The average student is 27, Lassiter wrote.

“They must balance work with family responsibilities and attending college. Yes, it seems they have lives that might interfere with the Texas Association of Business’s limited timeline.”

Completion rates are low for part-time students too, the association replied. Only 24 percent of part-time community college students who said they were seeking a degree complete a certificate or degree in six years, including transfer students who earned a bachelor’s degree.

The business group started looking at graduation rates three years ago when members complained they couldn’t find qualified workers, Bill Hammond, the association’s president and CEO, told Inside Higher Ed.

Hammond said the billboard campaign’s goal is a “better-educated workforce,” and community colleges aren’t getting the job done. About 9 percent of first-time students who enroll at two-year colleges in Texas graduate with an associate degree within four years, according to Complete College America.

“In Texas for a long time we have successfully focused on access,” Hammond said. “We’re spending a lot of money and not getting much in return.”

Hammond said he hopes both lawmakers and community college leaders tune into the group’s message. “They need to turn their focus to completion.”

Colleges should be funded based on performance, such as graduation rates, rather than enrollment, Hammond said.