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In April 2010, six national community college organizations (American Association of Community colleges, Association of Community College Trustees, National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, League for Innovation in the Community College, Phi Theta Kappa, and Center for Community College Student Engagement) jointly signed an historic commitment to boost student completion by 50%. The participating organizations stated a bold goal for the community college field: "to produce 50 percent more students with high quality degrees and certificates by 2020, while increasing access and quality." (See "Democracy's Colleges Call to Action" in appendix A).
This commitment to increase completion was further emphasized in the first recommendation of the 21st Century Commission on the Future of community colleges' final report calling on colleges to: "Increase completion rates of students earning community college credentials (certificates and associate degrees) by 50% by 2020, while preserving access, and enhancing quality" (Reclaiming the American Dream, Community Colleges and the Nation's Future: A Report from the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges; 2014). It has been five years since the community college field first committed to this challenge. This report is designed to answer the question – How well are community colleges doing in meeting the ambitious goals they set for themselves in 2010?
The original need for the commitment has not abated. The need for increasing levels of educational attainment in our country has not subsided, and to remain a competitive economy, more individuals need to attain postsecondary credentials of value. Education continues to be the entrée to the middle class, and individuals without postsecondary credentials will become increasingly marginalized in the 21st century economy. How do we know how well community colleges are doing at meeting this goal?
There are a lot of data on the number of credentials awarded by community colleges. However, it can be difficult to interpret this data to understand the role community colleges a taking in increasing the number of individuals who have a high quality credential. There are two separate sources of information that can help answer this, but neither provides a complete picture of the role community colleges play in addressing the goals. One source of data is institutional reports of credentials conferred as reported annually to the US Department of Education. While these provide a good accounting of the actual number of degrees and certificates conferred, it is problematic because many students earn more than one credential.
Therefore, using these data one cannot differentiate between students who are earning their first credential, or their fourth credential. While a student who earns four credentials will likely see a benefit from each of them (many colleges are creating stackable credentials to help move individuals along a career pathway), by counting each of these awards individually we over-represent the number of individuals in the country who have a credential of value. As second source of data come from levels of educational attainment in the US, as collected through the US Bureau of the Census. These data allow us to determine the number of individuals in the US by varying levels of educational attainment, but these data do not account for a large number of individuals who have certificates that have significant labor market value, nor can the attribute the credential to the type of institution which awarded the degree.
Therefore, this report uses data from the National Student Clearinghouse to provide a clearer picture of how many students are earning their first credential from a community college, as well as those with subsequent credentials from community colleges. But community colleges also provide a critical role in preparing students to succeed in four-year colleges as well, and many students earn their degree at a four-year college without first earning a credential at the community college. This report captures this important community college contribution to the completion agenda as well.
Data typically used to answer the question on increasing the rate of completions is also problematic. Graduation rates collected by the US Department of Education have several significant limitations, such as only including students who start full-time and only following students for a limited number of years. Therefore, these data provide only a limited view of how well colleges are doing at increasing their completion rates. This paper will examine these data, and discuss alternative approaches to measuring these goals.