Inside the Numbers

Two year colleges are not new–the first one, Joliet Junior College in Illinois, was founded in 1901. But considering Harvard was founded in 1636 (and is one of four colleges who claim to have been first in America), 114 years of history does seem relatively short. The world of community colleges we now know came about in the 1960s with the opening of 457 community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The number now stands at more than 1100, with nearly 8 million students currently matriculating,

Community college students as a group reflect the demographic trends of all colleges, notably public universities, which are increasingly older, more female, and more racially and ethnically diverse (PDF). Only 30% are 21 or younger, 57% are female, and 51% are white. Most work at least part-time and many work full-time, Perhaps more striking are facts such as 36% of them are first-generation college students and 17% are single parents. This last fact is the one that is perhaps most striking to me. When I think about why my students are in class, the ones that often jump out at me are the young parents, single or not, who are there to gain skills to better their careers and make more money. They say it when I talk about their educational goals, and I am sure there are many numbers out there to back me up.

(The Gates Foundation, which is putting a great deal of money into community colleges uses an enrollment number of 11 million, but that might be combining students taking credit and non-credit programs. I will tease this out as I write more about this, and I will be writing more about the Gates Foundation work.)

Of course every class has what we all think of as the “traditional” college student–18 or 19 years old, focused on an associates or bachelors degree. They work, but typically less than their older fellow students and– again I don’t have numbers but am willing to bet they back me up–are taking more classes at a time.

Working with these students, I know there are many ways to measure success beyond simple retention and graduation rates. I know those are important–vitally so–but I also know they are slippery. I am one of Bunker Hill’s historical statistics. I took one class there in the summer of 1979 to help speed along my bachelors degree, which I was getting at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now called University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a name I simply cannot get used to, even with my son there the past several years). I took a chemistry class (and did pretty well as I recall), but never returned. Did I “fail to graduate”? Was I part of a poor retention number? I don’t know, and I don’t know how the numbers account for people like me.

But the many metrics inside of graduation and retention rates are precisely what organizations like the Gates Foundation are focused on. Consider one Gates Foundation study that looked at three specific metrics that, to someone new to community college life, might seem like low bars.

  • Completion of at least one developmental education course with a grade of C or better
  • Completion of at least one gatekeeper course with a grade of C or better
  • Persistence (Fall-to-Spring and Fall-to-Fall)

I teach a gatekeeper course, which the Gates Foundation study defines as an entry-level course in a core subject such as English or Mathematics. I teach the traditional freshman English class, centered around the college essay, and including an exit exam where students are required to write a five-paragraph essay in response to a reading. Our students must have a passing grade for the class and pass the exit exam in order to move on to the second semester of freshman English, both of which are required for an associates degree, and both of which can be transferred to a Massachusetts public four year college.

So I actually live one of the metrics the study is looking at, and indeed success rates in classes like mine are the focus of a great deal of scrutiny–by the college itself, by the state administration, by the federal policy makers, by politicians, and by many other foundations and researchers. It is not lost on me that students have to move successfully through my classroom. They need to achieve the right grade. They need to pass the exit exam. They need to be prepared for the second semester of English. And they need to be prepared for the kind of thinking and writing they will do throughout a college career that I hope only begins with me and does not begin and end with me.

A few or a couple of times a year I get an affirmation, usually in the form of an email, but sometimes in the form of a brief conversation in a hallway. A recent and wonderful student–perhaps 15 years younger than me–stopped me in the lobby to let me know he had passed an important professional engineering certification test. He was already educated in Europe, but needed to improve his English in order to take the test. He was a thoughtful writer, nuanced and careful, who wrote things often three times as long as necessary. He thanked me profusely, and gave me far too much credit. I know that I only set good writing in motion, and offer my response. He did all of the hard work. Just this weekend I received an email from a young woman–a “traditional” college student from a few semesters ago–letting me know she was accepted to two four-year private colleges and would be attending one. I had given her an enthusiastic recommendation.

I hope these two students are measured as “good outcomes,” though I am guessing my engineering student is now done at Bunker Hill and will withdraw as his work is done. I hope the second student is captured as successfully transferring to a four-year school, but I actually don’t know how that is captured and reported (note to self–learn this!).

But for each of those kinds of successes that I learn about personally, there are ten times as many I don’t know about. Even my best students move on quietly. I record their “A” in my gradebook and usually never see them again. Those don’t trouble me. The ones that do trouble me are the ones who drift off–who stop appearing after the fourth class, or the seventh, or the tenth. After a first missed class, I always write a note. We only meet once a week, so even one missed class is a big hit. I am not as consistent after that, though if a student has done half of the work and is suddenly not showing up, I will sometimes reach out a second time. I am always glad to hear from those students when they do write back, and more often than not we are able to work out a way for them to complete the work. It’s the ones I don’t hear from again that truly bother me, and sometimes those are the ones I think about the most.

In baseball, you can’t bat a thousand (i.e., get a hit every time up). Indeed, hitting over .300 is a sign of excellence, and .400 is the rarefied air of baseball gods like Ted Williams, the last person to do this when he hit .406 in 1941 (!). But I am guessing the goal in higher education is .750 or better, and maybe .850 is nirvana. One recent study put community college graduation rates at 60% and another concluded 60% of community college students who transfer to a four-year school finish their degree within four years. What is the wide network of community college professionals aiming to achieve? What outcomes are meaningful and measurable? What is less measurable but perhaps just as meaningful?

Lots of questions. Lots and lots of questions. Perhaps community colleges need the educational research equivalent of sabermetrics.

UPDATE: Writing at Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed provides some refreshing and positive counterpoint to some of the negative numbers:

87 percent of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year college in the US do so before earning a credential at the community college. They show up in the community college’s numbers as dropouts, even as they go on to graduate with bachelor’s degrees.

51.3 percent of students who transfer out of public four-year colleges transfer TO community colleges. It’s actually more common than a “lateral” transfer.

18.5 percent of students who transfer from community colleges cross state lines, evading state-level data collection. 24 percent of students who transfer from four-year colleges do the same.

Matt Reed is a community college dean and author of Confessions of a Community College Administrator. You can follow him on Twitter @deandad.

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