A better path for measuring success in the community college

Former president of the League for Innovation in the Community College, Mark Milliron, wrote a provocative article challenging community college leaders to rethink the term ’2-year college.’ He makes a compelling argument that the term hurts students, the institution itself, and the communities supporting the institution since the term sets an expectation among these constituents that cannot be met. In fact, less than 5% of community college students complete an associates degree in 2 years. Milliron summarizes the reason in the article in the following statement:

Students are not coming to us in a neat, linear pipeline progression. They are swirling into and out of our educational programs and services at all different ages and stages…Our students by and large follow diverse pathways through our programs.

Most everyone I know in community college administration agrees that few students ever intend to get an associates degree, let alone achieve it in 2 years. Yet we know that although students do not receive a degree from the community college they often are successful in their own ‘unreported’ goals.

It is not enough, however, to expect change through conversation. It is time to demonstrate this success through new measurement vehicles. Community colleges must begin to report success through the eyes of its students.

Most community colleges ask the student for their educational goal on the admission application. Do your codes reflect the goals of your students or do they match the reporting outcomes required by your state? Students attend your institution with a variety of goals, including: intent to transfer to a four-year institution, receive a certificate in a technical program, enrichment, advance in their career, etc. You should survey your students to determine the list of educational goal codes that is right for your institution.

Do not simply collect these goals upon the students entry to your institution. You must put business processes in place that make it easy for students to keep you updated as their goals change, and you know they will.

Next you will need to measure the outcomes of these goals. Some goals will be easy to measure through the data captured in your student information system. Others, such as enrichment or ‘take a course to further my career’ will be harder to measure. You will need to enhance existing assessment vehicles to allow students to self-report that they have met their goals.

Instead of traditional retention rates, you can now measure educational goal attainment rates. While accrediting agencies and state boards do not yet measure your institutions effectiveness on these outcomes, they will be far better data points on which to base decisions. Then as institutions begin to demonstrate their success through a documented process based upon the student’s own intended outcome, the conversation about higher education success and accountability may truly change.