Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Different Way to Count

Last week’s report on the many failures of IPEDS data to reflect reality struck a chord.  Community colleges generally aren’t huge fans of IPEDS, since IPEDS focuses entirely on first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.  That’s a smallish minority of community college students, and with the growth of dual and concurrent enrollment programs -- in which high school students take college courses while in high school, thereby losing their ‘first time’ status -- it will get smaller still.  

The recent report adds several categories in which IPEDS struggles mightily to get it right: online courses, accelerated semesters, “continuing education,” and the like.  The common denominator to each variation is that it’s a departure from the traditional semester-based, full-time, eighteen-year-old student that the system assumes.  The farther you get from that model, the more the system struggles.  

Unsurprisingly, the system does best by the most affluent institutions, with the most traditional and affluent students.  It does poorly by community colleges and colleges with multiple formats and non-traditional students.  When “accountability” or “performance” systems are based on data like that, the results aren’t hard to predict.

It’s easy enough to nitpick this flaw or that one, but ultimately, those are rearguard actions.  In an era in which we get judged by headline numbers, parrying with asterisks is not a winning strategy.  

Instead, we need to design new measures that assume the community college setting as normal.  

That might involve paying less attention to “semesters,” and more to progress.  It shouldn’t matter whether a student makes progress in a regular semester, an accelerated semester, or even an intersession.  With competency-based programs starting to catch on, the entire ‘semester’ edifice is making less sense anyway.  

We shouldn’t conflate stopping out with dropping out, as the current system does.  Students who need to work full-time while going to school often have to take time off along the way, both to make money and to get some rest.  Instead of understanding that as institutional failure, which the IPEDS system does, we should judge institutions on how easy it is for the student to resume progress upon re-enrollment.  The trend towards “stackable” credentials is based on an overdue recognition that students move in and out of college for economic reasons, and it’s better to give them something useful before they go.  But in the current data, those stopouts count as attrition, and are held against us.

In the community college world, many adult students arrive with a grab-bag of credits they’ve accumulated over the years, and with various skills acquired through years of work.  How well does a college address those?  How well does it work with time-limited funding for students, such as unemployment or trade adjustment assistance?  If a student only has a year of funding for education, the job of the institution should be to provide something useful within that year.  Judging it as a failure for not generating a two-year or four-year degree misses the point.

Taking the community college student as “normal” is radical in the best sense of the word: it gets to the root of the issue.  As long as the “norm” is assumed to be eighteen, full-time, living on campus, and supported by Mom and Dad, then community colleges will look defective.  They have their challenges, like any institution, but openness to different kinds of students is a feature, not a bug.  If the data collection system can’t recognize that, then we need a new data collection system.  Let the old one die under an avalanche of asterisks.