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Graduation Figures Aren’t The End-All Measure of Success

Study Munchie by Daniel M. Reck, on Flickr

If low graduation and student transfer rates at City Colleges of Chicago don’t start improving, the system’s leaders could lose their jobs. That’s because the formal job responsibilities of the chancellor, presidents and even trustees include graduation rate goals,” reports Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed in his article, “Price of Success.”

Having studied with the City Colleges of Chicago’s previous chancellor, Dr. Wayne Watson, this story piqued my interest. Watson is now the president of Chicago State University, and has taught courses at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

In our class, he discussed the challenge of measuring community colleges’ graduation rates, because so many of the students who come to city colleges are not seeking a degree, or they take longer to finish it than the Department of Education metric allows.

According to this article, the Department of Education “looks at full-time, first-time students over a period equal to 150 percent of the time it would take to earn a credential” and “only 35 percent of the 127,000 students who attend City Colleges count toward that graduation measure, because many have studied elsewhere or enroll only part-time.”

I would be interested in knowing how many students enter CCC as a full-time, first-time with no intention of completing a degree; perhaps they just want to take one year of classes and transfer to a four-institution. Or maybe they are interested in a certificate, trade, or professional program. Would these students be counted as failures in the graduation tally? What about students who begin a full-time degree program and then drop to part-time because of financial, family, or employment reasons? If they still complete their degree, but take seven years, then are they are failures?

Obviously, some of these scenarios are success stories. A student completing trade training to become employable as a specialist who can work on utility poles and power lines—a certification for which CCC is the only training site in Illinois—is clearly something worthy of merit. A young single mother who begins a full-time program and realizes she’s taken on too much, but perseveres through a part-time program to complete her degree in addition to her family duties, should be counted as a success. Surely it is a good thing when a young man, who didn’t do so well in high school, puts in the work at a community college for a year to show a four-year university he’s ready, and he transfers to the university and graduates three years later.

Unfortunately, using the by-the-book definition of graduation rate at a community college serving these students would not measure success. It would indicate institutional failure when the students are in fact learning, growing, and becoming productive in their lives.

It may be true that the graduation rate for CCC “lags far behind the national average of 22 percent for public, two-year colleges,” and that is a fair comparison. However, we must ask if it is a relevant comparison when measuring success of these institutions.

As people call for CCC and other community colleges to boost their graduation figures by admitting better-qualified students, I believe that they are missing the point. Community colleges were established, in large part, to provide a local, affordable, and accessible access to higher education for the masses.

That means that these schools have the responsibility to serve all post-secondary students, not just those who are outstanding candidates, who by chance grew up in well-funded public school districts, who enjoy financial security, or who have lots of free time to devote to study.

Should CCC and other community colleges work to increase their graduation rate? Absolutely. Should it be the definitive measure by which institutional (and student) success is measured? No. We need a more comprehensive way of evaluating these achievements, one which accounts for the special mission of these community colleges.

Instead, the measure of success for community colleges like CCC should be whether their students—all students, not just full-time first-timers—are achieving their post-secondary educational objectives. Full-time students completing their degree under the current Department of Education metric should be tallied, but so should trade students completing their specialized training, and well as part-time students taking one course at a time to eventually complete an associate’s degree.

Measuring success at a community college shouldn’t be about a quantity, especially a quantity which only accounts for 35 percent of a college’s student population. That’s like looking at a student’s mathematics score on the SAT exam and using it exclusively to judge the student’s total ability without even checking to see how they did on the critical reading and writing sections.

Instead, let’s measure success by looking at quality, and all-around quality at that. Are community colleges providing the post-secondary programs needed in their communities? Are they training students who would otherwise have no access to higher education? Are all their students satisfactorily completing their intended courses of study, regardless of whether they are part-time, full-time, or just taking a few classes for transfer credit? Are their students who transfer to four-year institutions prepared for that transition, and prepared to graduate from those institutions?

Of course, creating and using an assesment instrument to measure that sort of success requires a lot more institutional introspection, planning, and execution than holding up a single statistic as the end-all measure of success. It requires investment, and it appears to be something that CCC’s new chancellor, Cheryl L. Hyman, is already working on.

Surely this is worthy of investment (not to mention the investment of our communities and legislative budget planners). We are educators—tasked with the building of precious minds—isn’t it worth the extra effort to do it well?