Thursday, March 26, 2015


Dropouts, Grads, and Terrible Counting

Ashley Smith’s IHE story Thursday got few comments and drew little notice, but it should have made national headlines.  It gives the lie to a great many tales being told about community colleges.

As her story noted, a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 46 percent of bachelor's degree graduates have at least some community college credits in their background, and that 65 percent of those who do have at least three semesters of community college under their belts.

In that light, suddenly the doom and gloom about community college graduation rates becomes a little harder to sustain.

At a really basic level, this is about definitions.  A student who does a year at a cc and then transfers for the bachelor's shows up in our stats as a dropout, even if she successfully completes the bachelor's in four years.  I don't see a rational purpose behind counting that student as a dropout, but them's the rules.  That student would show up in the 46 percent of bachelor's grads with cc experience, but would show up in our numbers as a dropout.  There's the disconnect.

The disconnect gets larger when you account for reverse transfers (four-year to two-year), who also don't show up in our graduation rates, even if they graduate.  Graduation rates only count "first-time, full-time, degree-seeking" students.  By definition, a transfer student is not first-time, so she's excluded from the grad rate.

Students who "don't count" in the rate are the vast majority here. (On my own campus, they're 83 percent of the students.  That strains the definition of 'outlier.') But they do count when you look at the total number of BA holders.  

Within the community college world, the issues with IPEDS are well-known.  But the outside world still largely thinks that something like a "graduation rate" is clear and unproblematic.  

The comments to the story raised a valid question about the "undermatching" hypothesis.  "Undermatching" is the theory, based on a statistical fallacy, that high-achieving students are less likely to succeed at colleges with lower graduation rates.  Essentially, it assumes that the lower class has cooties, and that the cooties are contagious.

It's based on bad math.  If you disaggregate the institutional grad rate, you see quickly that it varies widely by student demographics.  That's a major issue in itself, given the racial and economic divides in our society, but you really can't understand the aggregate rate without knowing that.  

The next step is connecting the dots between this study and the student loan crisis.  Do BA grads with significant community college experience have lower debt, on average?  (I'm guessing they do, but I haven't seen proof either way.)  If so, maybe it's time to shift the discussion more dramatically...

I suspect students typically end up with the same amount of debt, or a little more if they go through community college route. It's not like there is one rule for how FAFSA data inform aid. As long as I've been tracking the system (since the late 90s) tuition + room/board hassignificantly exceeded Pell + work-study, so loans are necessary, unless your institution decides to give you gift aid. The institution I went to had an incentive to keep the average loan low, but not the individual loans of less affluent students. Given a limited pool of gift aid, they distributed it such that everyone ended up with similar debt.
NPR's Planet Money recently did an interesting story (episode 611) on attempts to improve CC graduation rates, but they completely ignored this flaw in the statistics.
This points out the dangers that are encountered when one attempts to manage a department or an entire organization strictly by the numbers. This is especially true if the department or the organization gets somehow dinged if they don’t “meet their numbers”. This can lead to a whole series of perverse incentives, in which the institution adjusts its programs or changes its strategy strictly to improve their numbers and thereby stay out of trouble.

It makes absolutely no sense for a student who transfers from a community college to a four-year institution to be counted as dropout, and to punish the community college for this. After all, the student got what they came to the community college for, and they benefited enough from the instruction they got at the community college so that they could make a successful transition to a four-year college. We need to figure out a way that we can reward community colleges for this, not punish them.

I can see more of this sort of thing coming to higher ed in general. In the future, the purpose of a college or university will no longer be to educate the next generation of citizens, it will be to meet a whole bunch of numbers. If these numbers are not met, the institution will be punished by the funding agencies, by the accrediting bureaus, by the government regulators, or by the ratings services. In order to stay out of trouble, there will be a growing temptation for an educational institution to lie about the numbers or simply make them up. We will end up making decision based on numbers that almost everyone knows be bogus, but which no one is willing to admit are entirely fake.

You can't answer your last question without data, and I doubt if it is possible to connect the debt database with the (incomplete) alternative to IPEDS.

I fully support your ideas here, and have one random suggestion to add to what I hope you develop as a crowdsourcing search for a consistent national definition of success at 2-year colleges. Intent. Find a way to define a graduation goal that signals the intent to transfer. That is the problem.

We informally refer to those students as "transfer AA majors" because their goal (and ours) is to get them to meet the dual requirements of the gen eds requied by a transfer institution AND the prerequisites for the major AND the soft skills needed to survive and thrive in that major after transfer. Maybe we need to define nationally a degree name where the objective is either an AA degree or transfer to a 4-year school, and measure success on either result.
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