Anyone who fixates on graduation rates has little understanding not only of the rich mission and value of our community colleges, but also how deeply flawed and inadequate those rates are as a principal assessment tool for the performance of community colleges.
Graduation rate calculations apply to a small fraction of our entire student population (about 15%). That is because this national measure focuses only on new students and only on those new students who register for a full-time course load. Thus, the graduation rate for Bristol Community College is 19%, the average of the 15 Massachusetts community colleges is 16%, and the national average is 22%. The business leaders who make up our boards of trustees would not tolerate such a dismal performance, if it actually measured community college performance accurately.
What is wrong with the use of graduation rates as the performance indicator for community colleges? We know that about 85% of all community college students work either full- or part-time; consequently, most do not register for a full load of courses. So the majority of our students do not fall into the graduation rate database. Consider, too, that even those entering students who begin full-time study cannot always maintain that ambitious course load. If students remain enrolled, but opt for a reduced course load, they are considered unsuccessful based on the criteria for measuring graduation rates. Similarly, if students excel in their first year and transfer immediately to a four-year institution, they also are marked against the community college that succeeded in preparing them for transfer.
It’s more accurate to consider “Student Persistence” and “Student Success” in gauging the effectiveness of community colleges. For example, we have students who, because of their preparatory learning experience, transfer successfully before earning their associate degrees at Bristol. Shouldn’t we be praised for spurring student success instead of being castigated that they did not graduate on an arbitrary time frame? In addition, some of our students for personal reasons (such as employment schedules, child/spouse/parent care, health, finances, etc.), reduce their course load below full-time status. These students continue to persist in their academic pursuits for their degrees. Whether they earn more than 30 credits (the halfway mark to an associate degree) or less, they continue on track despite formidable personal circumstances. Aren’t they to be commended? Shouldn’t the college that makes this possible be seen as a success?
As a response to the terrible distortions about community colleges based solely on graduation rates, a national commission under U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has combined various categories of students to provide a more accurate measure of community college performance. The new national criteria for Student Success and Student Persistence now take into account across a six-year period: 1) student transfers; 2) students who have earned at least 30 credits and either remain enrolled or stop out temporarily; 3) students who have completed less than 30 credits but have not interrupted their studies; and, yes, 4) the traditional graduation rate (which we would never want to eradicate). Under this new cluster of criteria, the Student Success Rate for BCC (and all community colleges) jumps to nearly 80%!
Why do some influential voices continue to carp about community college graduation rates? Their fixation leads me to wonder about their motivation. Instead of celebrating the ability of students to use community college flexibility to fit higher education into their lives, these uninformed critics use our flexibility against us. If you encounter someone describing graduation rates as the only measure—and criticism—of community college performance, take the time to explain the other criteria that provide more accurate information about how well community colleges are really performing.
John J. Sbrega is president of Bristol Community College.