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Substantial Obstacles Exist to Implementing New Community College Graduation Rate Measures

Published:  April 24, 2012

The U.S. Department of Education this month announced that it has developed a preliminary plan to increase reporting requirements for graduation rates at colleges and universities. The “Action Plan for Improving Measures of Postsecondary Success” was developed around input from the Committee on Measures of Student Success (CMSS), a committee appointed by the Department of Education as required by the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The pending regulations, which the Department is crafting both for two-year and four-year colleges, are intended to provide a fuller picture of college completion rates. But although the new graduation rates will pull more students under their umbrellas, schools may struggle to meet the data collection needs they trigger.

Community colleges particularly stand to benefit from the new regulations because part-time and transfer students, currently excluded from completion rate calculations, make up a large portion of enrolled students. Returning students – those in degree- or certificate-granting programs who are not entering college for the first time – may also be counted in the new completion rates.

Under the current system by which schools report graduation rates to the Department of Education, the measure is limited to students who complete community college with a degree or certificate. The metric does not give community colleges any credit for students who transfer to four-year institutions, even though that fulfills a central goal of community colleges. Furthermore, schools are not necessarily required to report transfer-out rates, and those that do face difficulties caused by limited data or capacity to analyze existing data. Although the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reports both graduation rates and transfer-out rates, it reports them separately.

The Department of Education’s plan, following Committee recommendations, will include a requirement that institutions incorporate both graduates in degree or certification programs and students who transfer to a four-year degree-granting institution in its calculations of college completion rates. CMSS asserted that a combined graduation and transfer-out rate such as that one would provide a clearer picture of a school’s success.  

The Committee also recommended that institutions of higher education collect additional data, like the number of students earning a degree or certification in their two-year program who subsequently transferred to a four-year institution, those who transferred without completing their two-year program, and those who transferred after completing a two-year program but without earning a degree. Though the data collection requirements would be onerous, the information would provide a far more comprehensive view of schools’ outcomes. However, the Department did not adopt this recommendation in its plan. 

Recalculating graduation rates to include transfer-out students could bring community colleges much closer to President Obama’s goal—laid out in the American Graduation Initiative—of increasing the number of community college graduates by 5 million by 2020. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, counting those transfer students would increase the completion rate from 22 percent to 40 percent. (The Federal Education Budget Project, Ed Money Watch’s parent initiative, collects and displays the graduation and transfer-out rates for every community college that reports such data in its database.)

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for the new regulations is not defining them, but implementing them. To combat these challenges, the Committee recommended that the Department continue to incentivize states to create longitudinal data systems that track students’ postsecondary outcomes. And the Department’s action plan does, indeed, include references to the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems grant program. It promises to help schools build capacity to collect and disseminate data.

Schools face significant challenges to implementation because there is no national system in place to track students’ transfers – something that would require substantial coordination across states and institutions. Even though some states might possess the capacity to track students within their own state, tracking that student across state lines becomes nearly impossible.

So the Committee also recommended that the Department establish a national data system requiring any school that administers federal student aid to collect and report to it comprehensive data on students (including those who transfer between schools). But such a system is explicitly disallowed under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 following outcries from privacy advocates and institutions wary of more extensive reporting requirements.

Although the Department has not yet issued a timeline on when it will start to implement the “Action Plan,” it remains to be seen whether schools will have the resources, time, and capacity to achieve the new standards without significant changes to their data collection and reporting systems. That would certainly be a costly endeavor in the current period of fiscal austerity. And without the ability to track students as they move around the country and across institutions, students—particularly those at the highest risk for jumping in and out of schools—could slip through the cracks.

The Federal Education Budget Project maintains the most comprehensive and easy-to-use database available on education funding, student demographics, and outcomes for every school district and institution of higher education in the country.Graduation rates and other data points for two- and four-year institutions are available from the Federal Education Budget Project here.

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