Community Colleges Need Stronger Leadership

Apr 20, 2012

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report titled, Completion Matters: The High Cost of Low Community College Graduation Rates. This report examines the societal economic impact of the inability of the community college system to graduate its students at a high rate. The report estimates that cutting the dropout rate by half would generate an additional $5.3 billion in total taxpayer revenue as graduates would earn $30 billion more in lifetime income.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) was less than thrilled with these findings, calling the report “pseudo-science.” It should be noted that while AEI has a plethora of scholarly citations attributed to their report, AACC’s statement has exactly zero.

Before taking issue with the report itself, AACC’s press release proclaims that “anyone with even a basic understanding of American higher education is aware that community colleges are intensively focused on improving their completion rates.” It was not implied anywhere within AEI’s report that community colleges don’t care about improving graduation rates. In fact, AEI recognized that community college students face significant barriers to completion, including that “far too many students are not college ready, often have to work long hours while they study, and are supporting families while they study.”

As for their issues with the findings themselves, let’s take a closer look at them, line by line:

AACC’s Claim Analysis

AEI’s report uses the 150% “Student Right to Know” graduation rate rather than the more accurate 200% window that Department of Education (ED) has made broadly available. Community college graduation rates increase by 24.8% (from 22.1% to 27.6%) under this more accurate lens.

While they don’t make any statement about why it should take a student four years to complete a two-year degree, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and accept those numbers. The fact that they believe a 27.6% graduation rate is anywhere near acceptable should be fundamentally shocking. Further, shouldn’t schools be able to graduate more than just an additional 5.5% of their students if given a full extra year to do so?

The study further fails to consider the fact that many of the students who have not graduated at even 200% of the “normal time” as reported to ED, ultimately DO graduate The report deliberately avoids this obvious fact.

Unfortunately, the data does not exist to support this “obvious fact.” For instance, how many students is “many”? How long does it take them? What’s the cost to taxpayers? Why do they go back and what can be done to prevent them from leaving in the first place? Answering some of these questions would help their institutions on their intensive quest to improve graduation rates.

Many students do in fact re-enroll and are more aptly known as “stop-outs.” Federal data indicate that 62% of those who leave a community college in the first year re-enroll at an institution of higher education within the next five years. The omission of this simple but overwhelmingly important fact severely undermines the study’s credibility.

They might re-enroll, but do they actually graduate? Or are they just spending more taxpayer money without results? We don’t know because the data doesn’t exist.

The report assumes that those who leave a community college earn the same as high school diploma holders, rather than those who have “some college.” By definition, students who start and leave a community college have attained “some college.” In 2011, median weekly earnings for high school graduates were $638 as compared to $719 for those with “some college.” The unemployment rate was also 0.7% lower for those with “some college.”



While I can’t speak for the data and assumptions AEI used, and since definitions can vary, “some college” typically includes students who obtain non-degree certificates. These students would be labeled completers according to the Department of Education if they obtained at least a certificate. As such, the students AACC is protesting over far better fit the profile of someone with just a high school diploma than one who holds some form of postsecondary credential. Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a separate listing for “some college” when they report unemployment rates, and lumps those people in with those who obtain Associates degrees. Obviously, this is going to skew the numbers a great deal and makes it impossible to know how well people that have attended school but don’t have an actual credential fare. It’s probably safe to assume, however, that non-completers bring down the overall numbers in this category. Bottom line, these numbers can say a lot of things due to unclear definiti

The report dramatically understates the number of community college students who transfer to another institution of higher education. The authors reduce the number of students who transfer by estimating the number of students who transfer and then graduate from another institution. Despite significant obstacles, community college students who transfer to four year colleges attain the B.A. at the same rate as do native four year college students. Once accepted by four‐year institutions, community college students are generally as academically successful.

According to a 2009 Department of Education report, On Track to Complete?, which studied about 19,000 first-time community college students enrolled in about 1,300 institutions, just 15% obtained a degree or certificate within 3 years (150% time), while another 11% had transferred to a four-year institution. Additionally, 39% of community college students were still enrolled after 3 years, but had not attained a degree or credential. In summation, after 3 years, just 65% of the students in the study had either completed their program or were even still pursuing a degree or certificate.

The national graduation rate for four-year institutions within six years is 55%. In order for the community colleges in this study to reach an ultimate graduation rate of 55%, nearly three-fourths of that 39% of students who were still enrolled after three years would have to finish their degrees.

And for the record, given the immediate need for highly-skilled and- educated workers, a 55% graduation rate for four-year institutions is also unacceptable.


Lastly, the study touts for-profit colleges as a model that community colleges should emulate. AACC begs to differ. The 200% graduation rate for four-year for-profit colleges is 26.1%, a rate below that of community colleges (27.6%), and this does not account for many of the community college students who subsequently transfer. 

Unfortunately, AACC did not cite their data; however, according to the current data listed by the Department of Education under IPEDS, for the academic year ending August 31, 2010, the average two-year for-profit institution had a 200% graduation rate of about 65%. 

For what it’s worth, using the same data and variables, public two-year institutions had an average graduation rate of about 33%. 

And no, these numbers don’t account for transferring students, but students also transfer from for-profit schools.


I cannot repeat strongly enough that none of this is to suggest that community colleges—in general— aren’t taking their problem with graduation rates seriously. Further, I will be the first to acknowledge that calculating graduation rates for community colleges is a problematic venture given the data we have and their overwhelming composition of students from at-risk backgrounds. That’s still no reason why we can’t take an objective look at how effectively these public institutions are utilizing taxpayer money.

Make no mistake that regardless of how you crunch the numbers or what factors you want to consider, our community colleges are simply not producing enough degrees and certificates. There are many actions that community colleges can and should be taking to increase completion rates. And yes, there are a great many things that the sector can learn from for-profit institutions, such as how to effectively deliver online instruction and how to use data and research to determine what they can do to better retain and more effectively impart an education to their students. 

While it’s fully understandable that AACC would take a defensive posture regarding a report that uses graduation rates, but the statement released is indicative of an industry sector that is more willing to stick its head in the sand than it is to make necessary improvements. Fortunately, I know there are a great many community colleges that are willing to carve pathways to becoming more effective institutions. I have met with many excellent community college leaders over the years, and I know how earnest they are in serving the public good. Yet if we are to significantly improve community college completion rates, it will require stronger leadership at the national level than what is demonstrated here.

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