OUR VIEW: Statistics can help grade community colleges

April 27, 2013 

How do you measure success of California's community colleges, which try to be so many things to so many people?

It's easy from the angle of the individual students. An associate degree, smooth transfer to a four-year university or a certificate that leads to a job or a better job all would count as successes.

But how do citizens, policymakers, parents and communities know how effectively their colleges are doing from objective analysis rather than anecdotal examples?

In decades past, enrollment was the most-cited number and it continues to reflect how well a community college markets itself to prospective students. But is getting people in the door enough? Do those entering students leave with a degree, a vocational certificate or classes to transfer to a university?

The quick answer: Only about half do.

Legislation passed in 2010 required the community college system to identify ways to improve student success. A state task force devoted a year to the subject and came up with 22 recommendations. The general aim is to help community college students quickly define their goals and then stay on track to achieve them. Better orientation and advising are part of the strategy, but so are requirements that students must maintain a reasonable GPA to qualify for financial assistance.

The state's ambitious reform project also includes a Student Success Scorecard, which shows how well student of various ages, ethnicities and education levels are doing at each of the 112 publicly supported community colleges.

The chancellor's office of the California Community Colleges put the scorecard on its website earlier this month. We took a sampling of figures for the chart that appears here, but much more detail is available in the online version. We urge people to take a look — http://scorecard.cccco.edu.

Though the temptation is to compare one college against another, the intent is for colleges to look at their own strengths and weaknesses and improve the latter, says Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications.

Some of the numbers are pretty impressive, a few disturbingly low and some need an explanation.

For example, not all high school graduates are "college prepared." While they don't have to take the SAT or other entrance exams to get into a community college, they do have to take placement exams in English and math to show whether they are ready for college-level courses. If they aren't, they are directed to remedial classes to raise their skills.

Among "college prepared" students who enter the community colleges statewide, more than 71 percent overall leave with a degree, certificate or transfer credits. That's a good number. The percentages are lower at Modesto Junior College and Columbia. But MJC shows a better number for "persistence," which means students who enroll for three consecutive terms. Community college students often are juggling work and family responsibilities and maybe other issues. Keeping them coming back is one ingredient for long-term success.

A surprisingly low number: Only 50 percent of MJC's "college prepared" students between 20 and 24 are persisting, are staying in school for three consecutive terms. Why is that number so low, especially when 66 percent of the "unprepared for college" in the same age bracket are attending for three consecutive terms?

The scorecard also demonstrates that community colleges have a special challenge: serving students who need a lot of remedial help. For whatever reasons — and this will be up to the colleges to figure out — many students in remedial classes never reach the point of completing a college-level class.

Inevitably people will interpret the data in the scorecard in different ways, some seeing a cup half full and others a cup half empty. One major plus in this scorecard is that it provides accountability and transparency in a format that the public can easily access and fairly easily understand.

This scorecard is — or should be — a self-assessment tool for colleges, their faculties, staffs and trustees and a guide for lawmakers making funding decisions.

The scorecard will be even more valuable as the years go by, because it will provide an accurate way to track improvements — or declines — by the community colleges, the largest segment of higher education in California.

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