The Catch-22 of Community College Graduation Rates

The Catch-22 of Community College Graduation Rates
Community college graduation rates may appear to be in dire straits, but what are the real numbers? Could it be that the “successful” students who transfer to four-year universities are considered community college “drop outs” statistically?

Throughout his administration, President Obama has shined a major spotlight on America’s college graduation rates, and community colleges are feeling the pressure. According to the Hechinger Report, fewer than one out of five students at community colleges obtain their desired degree in three years or less. A recent study published by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) paints a similarly grim picture by indicating that high college dropout rates cost both state and federal governments billions of dollars each year. However, do these numbers really paint an accurate picture of what is happening in community colleges and four-year institutions across the country? This article will explore the many reasons for high dropout rates, including flaws in the manner in which such data is collected.

What the Numbers Show

As shown in the graph above, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that only 13 percent of community college students graduate in two years. Within three years, approximately 22 percent of students graduate, and within four years, the rate stands at 28 percent. Further data from AIR shows that only about 60% of college students graduate from four-year colleges and universities within six years. AIR vice president Mark Schneider claims that more than $9 billion is spent on these students each year by state and federal governments, yet all that funding fails to produce a college graduate that could bring those years of education to the country's workforce. While the AIR numbers are specifically related to enrollment at four-year institutions, they do not bode well for community colleges either, particularly at a time when President Obama is trying to raise graduation rates at two-year schools.

What the Numbers Don’t Show

But are these statistics really accurate? For educators and others who delve further into the facts and figures, it appears that many students may be getting more benefit from community college than the initial data might indicate. For example, an article in the Patriot Ledger reports that some of the community college "dropouts" might include students who transfer to a four-year institution before earning their associate's degree. While they did not finish their education at the community college, these students moved onto bigger goals for their education and their future. In fact, one-fourth of all college students who begin at a community college go on to a four-year institution, and of those, 60 percent graduate with their bachelor’s degree. Yet in many reports, these students are lumped into the “dropout” category, thus making community college graduation rates look worse than they really are.

Furthermore, a report in Tufts Daily states that other students do not finish their degrees in the timeframe set by studies, which tends to be within five years. Students might begin their education, then leave to tend to family issues, or enter the workforce or the military, only to return many years later to graduate with their degree. These students may end up finishing their degrees, but since they took more time than studies allow, they are simply classified as college dropouts.

Another report by New American Foundation explores the specific needs of community college students and relates those to dismal graduation rates. The report explains that many high school graduates that come from low-income families or are first-generation college-goers may find community college to be the best option for them. However, life circumstances for these demographics, including financial constraints, transportation, and child care needs, can hinder goals to finish the educational process and obtain a degree in a traditional timeframe. Therefore, many of the students who show up in reports as “dropouts” did not leave school because they wanted to, rather, they were compelled to by some uncontrollable life event. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of students who fall into this category, it is sure to be a large portion of the total number of students who do not complete their two-year degree. The American Community College Association contends that if this and other factors were taken into account, graduation rates for two-year institutions would be closer to 40 percent.

The Misconception About "Students"

While some studies assume that all individuals attending postsecondary schools are traditional students attending college right out of high school, this is not always the case, particularly in the community college environment. Many students are professionals needing additional education to compete in the workforce. For example, a real estate agent who needs to brush up on her math might take one or two math classes at a local community college. These kinds of students do not fit the traditional mold and may not require the traditional educational model of a set number of years of schooling and a degree to succeed in their field. Yet, they may be classified as dropouts because they don’t acquire a degree.

Students that do attend community college right after high school often need remedial assistance to prepare them for the rigors of postsecondary schooling. According to the Center on International Education Benchmarking, 42 percent of first-year students at community colleges need some sort of remediation to succeed. If academic support is not available, these students may slip through the cracks and add to the dropout statistics. But even when support is available, students who take remedial classes are far less likely to graduate – after five years, only about 25 percent obtain a degree.

However, many schools have implemented programs that seek to retain students and see them through to graduation. For example, at Northern Virginia Community College students are required to maintain a continuous relationship with counselors, ensuring that students receive the support and guidance they need to succeed in college. Other colleges have implemented transfer student programs that guide students through the process of transferring to a four-year institution. Some schools have early alert referrals, in which professors who see a student’s grades slipping refer the student to academic support and advisement to get help getting back on track. Yet other institutions require coursework for freshmen to familiarize them with appropriate ways to study and maintain good grades. With these and many other programs offered nationwide, we may begin to see graduation rates rise.

While there is certainly room for improvement in the community college completion rate, the current statistics may be misleading in terms of just how successful these institutions really are. Studies that claim that graduation rates are horribly low should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet, with more focus placed on community colleges by the current administration, it is worthwhile to take the time to explore the benefits of community college and how the educational system can improve to help retain students through to graduation.

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