Monday, October 30, 2017

Ask the Administrator: New Data, New Dissertation Topic?

In light of the new IPEDS data, a longtime reader who is pursuing a doctorate asks:

So, here's the career advice question.  Can you think of a compelling research question that can now be explored with the new data and would make a good dissertation topic?  

I like this question, for obvious reasons.  

To recap: IPEDS, the federal data system for higher education, has long been the bane of community colleges for its exclusive focus on first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.  It’s finally making some key changes, including looking at part-time students and students who aren’t first-time.  It still has some blind spots, such as early transfer to ontime completion and crossing state lines, but it’s considerably better.

So, given new and more accurate data, what questions are either worth revisiting, or worth asking with a new expectation of an actual answer?

I’ll suggest a few starting points, and then ask my wise and worldly readers to improve on them or add their own.  Some of these may involve supplementing IPEDS, but they’re meant as prompts.

Reverse transfer.  Most of the literature on transfer looks at the success rates of students who start at two-year schools and then transfer to four-year schools.  We haven’t looked as closely at “lateral” transfer -- two-to-two or four-to-four -- or at “reverse,” defined as four-to-two.  But those are much more common than many people think.  How do students who start out at, say, Penn State and then transfer to Harrisburg Area Community College do?  And is the effect different across demographic lines: race, gender age?  

Effects of “stopouts.”  People who work at community colleges know that students frequently stop out and return, generally due to financial or familial circumstances.  IPEDS has historically counted those as dropouts, but that’s often misleading.  How do students who take a semester or year off fare upon their return?  Again, break it out by demographics.  Do some groups thrive more than others?  Does it work better in some regions than others?  Our policies and default assumptions take stopouts as dropouts, but that may not reflect reality.

“15 to Finish” vs. “Pace Yourself.”  There’s a philosophical debate raging in community college circles around the “15 to Finish” initiative.  “15 to Finish” is based on basic arithmetic: finishing a 60 credit degree in 4 semesters requires averaging 15 credits per semester, as opposed to the 12 that the Feds define as “full-time.”  Some colleges have found that nudging students who normally carry 12 credits to carry 15 instead increases graduation rates.  But many students -- most, in this sector -- don’t start with 12.  For students taking, say, six credits at a time, would moving to twelve and borrowing money lead to better outcomes than taking six and working?  Because that’s the choice that many students face.  

Older vs. Younger.  Do stopouts work differently for 19 year olds than 29 year olds?  Is part-time status more dangerous at one age than another?  Again, demographic breakdowns are likely to matter, so they’re worth testing.  

Online achievement gaps.  This one probably goes beyond IPEDS, but if there’s good data on it, it’s worth exploring.  

ESL/ELL.  I have yet to see a good study on the progression of ESL or ELL students.  It’s an important population, especially in the community college sector, but badly understudied.  Does the logic of streamlining that many of us apply to remediation make sense here, or is it a fundamentally different enterprise with different needs?  What’s the most effective way to help students learn English while completing a degree or certificate program?  Do they navigate institutions differently?  

Men over 24.  I’ve written about this before, but it remains a question.  This is the most elusive group to enroll.  How do they retain and complete?  Are there programs/areas in which they do better?  I’m thinking race and region will matter here, though that’s obviously testable.  

Dual/concurrent enrollment.  College courses offered to high school students are all the rage.  How do their effects play out over time?  

Anyway, those are some first thoughts.  Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, subtract, substitute, or change?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.