New Internet Tool Helps Measure Community College Student Success

Washington, D.C. – In an effort to provide a more nuanced snapshot of completion rates at community colleges, the College Board on Monday launched a new Internet tool described as a “quick and easy” way get a handle on various measures of student outcomes.

While the usefulness and user-friendliness of the new website is a matter of perspective (it only provides already-published data that must be downloaded in spreadsheet form) College Board collaborators described it as a welcome attempt to shine light on the role that community colleges are being expected to play in providing workforce training for students from diverse walks of life.

“Data by themselves as we know them don’t change anything but can be a powerful prompt for constructive change, and monitoring the impact of the work we’re doing to improve outcomes for a wildly diverse student population,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement and an adjunct professor in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

McClenney made her remarks on Monday in a conference center at the Newseum during an event hosted by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center to announce the new web tool, formally known as “The Completion Arch.”

The Completion Arch takes its name from the fact that it is based on a symbolic semicircle divided into five parts that represent separate areas of community college completion: 1) enrollment; 2) developmental education placement; 3) progress; 4) transfer and completion; and 5) workforce preparation and employment outcomes.

The website features the ability to break information down by state, race and ethnicity or gender, but it does not include institution-specific data, thus, it is not possible to figure out the percentage of students at a given community college who landed jobs in their field of study.

Attendees included several high-ranking education officials within the Obama administration, several higher education association leaders and a number of community college presidents who serve on the College Board’s Community College Advisory Panel.

A common refrain at the meeting was that current measures of community college outcomes fail to do justice to the institutional missions of community colleges and the complex lives of the students they serve.

“I can’t emphasize enough how IPEDs does not do it,” said Lucille Jordan, president of Nashua Community College in Nashua, N.H., in reference to the federally-maintained Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

IPEDS is actually one of the data sources for The Completion Arch.

Jordan noted how nearly half of the students at Nashua Community College are actually four-year students who attend other universities, and other students “come and go,” which makes it difficult to measure their success.

The Completion Arch, Jordan and others said, is a welcome addition because it draws upon additional data to measure various student outcomes not measured by IPEDs.

For instance, The Completion Arch looks at more than just the number of credentials or degrees conferred upon students, but other measures such as how many students completed “gatekeeper” courses or how many completed a certain amount of credits within a specified time.

“Students who intend to complete a program and obtain a credential or transfer to a four-year college must complete a required number of course credits,” The Completion Arch website says. “For students who do not intend to graduate or transfer but may be more interested in improving their workforce skills or cultivating personal interests, earning a certain number of college-level credits may constitute a goal in and of itself.”

But creators of the website acknowledged that it is lacking in its ability to capture wage data for community college graduates – in part because the data itself is difficult to obtain.

When McClenney asked Ken Atwater, president of Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla., whether more needed to be done to track labor market outcomes for community college students, Atwater said: “Yes.”

“When we go to legislators’ offices and the governor’s office, they ask: ‘What are the outcomes? Are you training people to get jobs? If so, how?’” Atwater said.

Atwater said such data can be difficult to access because of the transient nature of community college students. Still, ultimately getting labor market data is important in a time of constrained budgets, Atwater said, because such data will make the case to those who control government purse strings that community colleges are a worthwhile investment.

“If we train people to get jobs, we become a priority,” Atwater said. “We can’t advocate that unless we have data that is consistent.”