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- Three Takeaways From the Strada Foundation Report on Community College Value
Three Takeaways From the Strada Foundation Report on Community College Value
Sifting through the implications
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A new report from the Strada Foundation provides interesting insights into community college student goals, the impact of their attendance, and their satisfaction with their college experience.
The data in the report have implications for three important areas of interest to our readers.
How we measure student success and, consequently, how we address poor student success outcomes
How we implement non-degree credentials, based on further indications that they are not yet ready for primetime
How we prepare students to succeed in the workplace and address enrollment challenges given signs that disparate outcomes among community college students are getting worse, not better
In this post, I use the Strada report as a starting point to explore these three issues.
The report shows that contrary to what one might expect, only a minority of recent community college students enrolled with a goal of completing an associate degree. Student goals are reflected in the table below.
The percentages add up to more than 100% as students could report multiple goals. Strada points out that the data contrast with surveys from the national Community College Survey of Student Engagement on currently enrolled student goals, where a majority of enrolled students report wanting to get an associate degree.
The Strada authors put forward several reasons for this disparity, e.g., current students possibly overreporting attainment aspirations or being incentivized to report being degree-seeking for financial aid purposes. Nevertheless, the data presented above align closely with what I have consistently heard from community colleges over the years. Students exhibit a strong interest in acquiring practical skills and tend to prioritize these over obtaining traditional diplomas or certificates. Their primary goal is to secure meaningful employment, and if they can achieve this goal before completing a degree or certificate, they consider it a significant achievement. However, this behavior does not align with conventional measures of student success, which typically view students leaving before completing their degree or certificate as a failure.
Leaving without obtaining a formal credential carries risks, however, including potential challenges in securing the next job, particularly when automated resume screening tools often prioritize completed degrees. However, one undeniable implication arising from the data is additional ammunition for a more nuanced approach to interpreting indicators like low completion rates at community colleges. Retention and completion rates are too blunt of instruments to understand community college student success. This is important for two reasons.
Firstly, community colleges themselves must continue to reconsider how they measure success. Traditionally, higher education outcomes have been gauged by retention and completion rates, which have historically been low at community colleges. For instance, public 2-year institutions have retention rates of approximately 60% for full-time students and 43% for part-time students. Moreover, only 43% of students at public community colleges manage to complete a credential within six years.
However, considering the insights provided by the Strada (as well as other studies), retention and completion do not appear be the most suitable metrics for comprehensively evaluating student success within the community college context. To get a more accurate indication of success, institutions need to delve deeper into evaluating the skills students acquire, their post-graduation satisfaction, and their achievements beyond the academic setting. Measuring these factors is undoubtedly challenging, but we must develop reliable methods for doing so.
Secondly, colleges may need to change the kinds of things they do to address problems with student success. Given that success has been measured primarily in terms of retention and completion, to improve student success colleges have devised methods such as Guided Pathways or the CUNY ASAP programs, all targeted quite specifically at keeping students in college and helping them get to the finish line.
Additional data from the Strada survey underscores the pressing need for community colleges to invest substantially in helping students develop skills relevant to their post-college lives. As depicted in the chart below, only one skill, albeit an important one, was perceived by a majority of students to have been significantly developed during their college experience.
The Strada report is the latest and perhaps the most useful source to show that student success should not be measured only by means of metrics such as retention and completion. Furthermore, efforts at improving student success should not only focus on keeping students in school and getting them to the finish line. Instead, the focus should be broader, on giving them skills they need and helping them make a transition to what comes next.
The Strada study provides additional ammunition for the argument that there are problems with the way that non-degree credentials are being perceived by students and employers.
Looking again at Table 2 on student attainment goals above, the fact that interest in a certificate is lower than any other goal is significant. More concerning is the data in the chart below which shows students holding associate degrees or certificates doing worse than other groups in terms of salary.
Community colleges need to do some work and work with employers to help them understand the value and meaning of these credentials as the salary measure is only going to get more and more important (as recent Gainful Employment (GE) regulations indicate) in measuring outcomes in higher education. If the current version of GE regulations become finalized, all certificates, including those at non-profit community colleges, will be subject to the earnings level measures that these regulations entail. Low levels of earnings make it more likely (though not inevitable) that programs will meet GE thresholds with serious implications for colleges ability to offer federal financial aid.
The data in the report has one final implication and it concerns findings about how the impact of community college varies by demographic groups. The chart below shows the percentage of students reporting earnings of at least $48,000 per year broken down by race.
Some of this is not surprising, given the unfortunate realities of racial disparity in our society. As NCES and other data show, there are consistently disparities across racial groups across all levels of educational attainment.
However, the differences between the disparities in the Strada report from 2023 and the relative size of the disparities in the NCES chart from 2016 above are concerning because they suggest the differences might be getting worse. Separate from any important ethical questions raised, the implications of this potential rising disparity are something community colleges need to address fast, for two reasons.
As mentioned above, earnings data will be increasingly used via regulations such as Gainful Employment to measure value provided by credentials and institutions. Non-profit community colleges will face consequences (including the loss of federal student loan eligibility) if students do not meet a debt-to-earnings ratio and an earnings threshold (described in more detail in this article) for certificate students. They will need to provide a warning to students for any associate degree programs that do not meet these thresholds.
Many community colleges are facing enrollment challenges. Black student attendance at community colleges has also been falling for some time and declined precipitously during the Covid pandemic. Black community college student enrollment decreased by 44% from 1.2 million in 2010 to 670,000 in 2020. From Fall 2019 to Fall 2021, Black community college student enrollment fell by 18%.
If community colleges are to address their enrollment challenges, they are going to need to address the attractiveness of attendance for all students but especially for black students. Earnings after graduation are going to be part of that and addressing the disparities is going to be tricky as many aspects of this are outside of the control of community colleges. But they need to do what they can to make sure these disparities are lessened.
The Strada report on community college value provides some great insight into some of the dynamics at play in community college student success and satisfaction. The data Strada provides has big implications in three areas all of which require changes in approach by community colleges. The net result is a short but difficult to-do list for community college administrators wanting to ensure that their institutions survive and thrive into the future.
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