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OPINION: When it comes to measuring community college success, graduation rates fall short

Here’s the information we need to help underserved students take the next steps

InInstructors lead a roundtable discussion with students at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, to discuss their video-game projects. The college is affiliated with Achieving the Dream’s National Reform Network. Photo: © Ralph Barrera/Austin American-

Students, parents, policymakers and the public need good information to understand how well community colleges are doing to help students succeed.

These groups typically rely on cursory information about tuition costs, the reputations of specific programs, and the percentage of students who graduate from the institution or transfer to four-year colleges to assess whether a particular institution does well by its students.

This information only reveals so much. To students, in particular, completing a community college degree or certificate is not an end in itself but the next step to something greater.

Graduation rates are an indicator that institutions are achieving success during the time students enroll. But such data, and information about the institution’s reputation that comes from trustworthy sources, provide insufficient evidence of the longer-term benefits that a community college can have on the lives of its students and the community it serves.

Student success in community college goes beyond earning a degree or certificate or achieving a certification goal. It also means improved skills, better employment prospects, and economic growth for families, communities and our nation as a whole.

While completion is crucially important, if a student completes a credential that does not translate into successful and engaging work, financial well-being, and a thriving social and civic life beyond college, then the value of that credential is limited or even lost.

At Achieving the Dream, which has spent the past decade working to bolster college retention and completion for a larger proportion of students, especially low-income students and students of color, we have long realized that doing justice to the many ways community colleges benefit students, employers and whole communities requires more than a single statistic.

With support from Strada Education Network, we worked closely with Gallup, the analytic research agency, to determine how community colleges are advancing a more holistic measure of student success. (Strada Education Network is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.)

Specifically, we determined the extent to which community colleges in our Achieving the Dream network that are intentional in their design of the student experience impact graduates’ success in workplace engagement, well-being, college satisfaction and alumni engagement.

Our new report, “Measuring What Matters,” shows that institutions working with Achieving the Dream to focus on equity in educational outcomes and introduce data-informed practices and whole-college solutions are outpacing peer institutions when it comes to helping more students get better jobs, live better lives and have positive college experiences.

For example, graduates of colleges affiliated with Achieving the Dream are more likely to be “thriving” on measures of:

  • Purpose, or liking what they do each day and being motivated to achieve their goals (48 percent for ATD colleges vs. 35 percent at other community colleges);

  • Financial well-being, or managing their economic lives to reduce stress and increase security (32 percent vs. 19 percent, respectively);

  • Social well-being, or having strong and supportive relationships and love in their lives (47 percent vs. 36 percent, respectively); and

  • Community well-being, or liking where they live, feeling safe and having pride in their communities (39 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively).

Nearly nine in 10 graduates of institutions in Achieving the Dream’s National Reform Network rate their college experience as “good” or “excellent,” while nearly three of every five strongly agree that their education was worth the cost.

This was true regardless of income, first-generation status or race, with black and Hispanic graduates most likely to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost (61 percent and 62 percent, respectively).

Evidence that community colleges are closing equity gaps is particularly heartening. For example, Hispanic and Asian alumni are most likely to be thriving in at least four elements of well-being (24 percent and 23 percent, respectively), followed by black and white alumni (both 20 percent).

Students of color reported having an “excellent” experience at their community college at similar or slightly higher percentages than their white counterparts. Just over half of black and Hispanic alumni said their experience was excellent, while just under half of Asian and white alumni said the same.

Even the highest-performing community colleges need to continue to ramp up their efforts to raise graduation rates and help students with the many challenges they face inside and outside the classroom. In addition, states must do a better job of making workforce data available and connecting outcomes to educational data to be able to measure this type of performance. Many colleges that wanted to participate in this study simply did not have access to the necessary data.

But the study reveals some benefits of measuring community college success beyond graduation to provide a more complete picture of the value and impact of community colleges, particularly for the nation’s most underserved populations.


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Dr. Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a network of more than 220 community colleges in 40 states and the District of Columbia committed to helping students, particularly low-income students and students of color, achieve their goals for academic success, personal growth and economic opportunity.

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