In a meeting Wednesday, a professor raised a great point. When we ask students to declare whether they're "degree-seeking," why don't we divide them into two groups: "degree seeking here" and "degree seeking elsewhere."
Before anyone jumps in and says "visiting students!," let me clarify. The issue here isn't the student who's full-time at Flagship State and takes an intersession class here to transfer it over when she goes back in the Spring. That student is a visiting student, and we already have a category for that. That's the easy case.
The harder case is the student who starts at a community college with every intention of transferring after a year to a four-year school. That student is using the community college as a springboard -- nothing wrong with that -- and saving thousands of dollars while getting the same eventual degree. But in the meantime, she shows up in our numbers as a dropout, as if the community college did something wrong. And she doesn't show up in the four-year school's graduation rate at all.
But the financial aid rules, let alone IPEDS data, don't make such fine-grained distinctions. As far as they're concerned, "degree-seeking" means "degree-seeking here." And that leads to some serious reality gaps.
For example, when we speak of "transfer," people usually assume that it refers to a community college student moving on to a four-year school cleanly, degree in hand. And sometimes it means exactly that. But more often, it means one of the following: going from cc to four-year before completing the first degree; going from one cc to another; going from a four-year to a cc ("reverse transfer"); or sometimes taking classes at two places simultaneously, even while being "matriculated" at only one of them. (That last one is a financial aid nightmare, since students can only receive Federal aid at one school at a time.) Recently, some studies have shown a surprising number of bachelor's grads coming back to cc's with four-year degrees already in hand, retooling for new careers. They aren't technically "transfers," but they're becoming common enough that we'll need to develop terms and policies for them. They don't fit cleanly into policies designed with first-time, full-time, 18 year old students in mind.
In states with "performance funding," obviously, getting the numbers meaningfully wrong has direct consequences. But even in states that don't have performance funding yet, the damage to public image, and the misconceptions held by policymakers, can be significant.
One response is to simply junk everything that doesn't fit policymakers' assumptions, and then to bask in press adoration as pretty numbers stream in. I'll call that the Guttman Community College strategy. It works as far as it goes, but it works mostly because it excludes. It's a fascinating proof of concept, but not a serious alternative in most places.
A second response is to shrug, let fly some snark about politicians, and brace for impact. I'll call that the default strategy. I'm not a fan; fatalism is selfish, and too many people are depending on community colleges to just give up.
My preferred response is an admittedly awkward combination of trying to improve our own results while simultaneously educating the public and policymakers as to how things actually work. It isn't as simple or elegant as the first two, but it has the advantage of being both ethical and possible. Difficult, but possible.
In the meantime, I'll keep nagging the Feds to amend "degree-seeking" to add a second flavor: degree-seeking, but not here.