Different Rules Doesn't Mean No Rules

Yes, community colleges must be held accountable, but in a fair and sensible way


November 20, 2014

After my last column, in which I argued that two-year colleges should not be held to the same standards as four-year institutions on the issue of graduation rates and college completion, my Twitter feed exploded. (OK, so "exploded" is a relative term. You know you’re an academic when one of your followers retweets you to his four followers.)

Nevertheless, I received quite a few tweets, most of them supportive, and many voicing some version of, "You’re right—two-year and four-year colleges shouldn’t be judged by the exact same standards. And yet we need some sort of metric for evaluating two-year colleges because they have to be held accountable, too."

I agree. Two-year colleges should be held accountable for fulfilling their missions, just like their four-year counterparts—even if the specific standards are different because the missions are different. Creating metrics is not one of my strong suits, but I do have a few suggestions for what a fair and useful system of evaluating community colleges ought to include. I’m certainly open to other ideas, and hope many of you will offer yours in the comments below.

This is something we at two-year colleges ought to be debating among ourselves, rather than waiting for outside entities who don’t understand what we do to force their arbitrary standards on us. Of course, that’s pretty much what’s happening right now because we’ve been too quiet. We can’t afford to be quiet any longer. And so, to get the ball rolling, here are the metrics I would propose for evaluating the effectiveness of our colleges.

Recognize the differences. Last month’s column covered this ground, but it’s important to make this clear: The biggest problem with college completion standards in most states is that they tend to lump all public institutions together, whether two-year or four-year, assuming they must all have the same input and should therefore have the same output.

Those of us who work in higher education know that isn’t the case. Two-year colleges have different missions, admit different students, have different levels of funding, and measure student success differently. And when I say "differently," I don’t just mean differently from four-year institutions; I mean, in many cases, that two-year campuses do these things differently from each other.

Here’s a suggestion: Instead of trying to impose some kind of one-size-fits-all metric for student success—that we know won’t work—why don’t we allow each two-year college to develop its own set of standards which it will subsequently be held to? It can be a kind of mission statement—but not the jargon-laden exercise in self-promotion, carefully crafted by the president’s cabinet, that usually passes for a "mission statement" on the college’s website. Rather, it should be a genuine statement of mission, drafted by a representative committee of faculty and staff members, laying out the college’s realistic goals and objectives for serving students.

That draft statement could then be published in a public forum, with students, local residents, area businesses, and other stakeholders invited to weigh in. It’s a community college, after all, so why not let the community decide what the college ought to be doing? The committee could make appropriate revisions based on the response and arrive at some consensus. From then on, a community college could be fairly judged against its own self-imposed standards.

Graduation is not the only "successful" outcome. Much of the angst driving the current college-completion hype stems from the fact that two-year colleges typically have very low graduation rates, often hovering around 30 or 40 percent. That sounds terrible—but only if you assume that graduation and student success are the same thing or that "failing" to graduate equates to actual failure.

Students who enroll at a four-year university generally intend, or at least hope, to graduate from that institution. But that isn’t the case for many students at two-year colleges. It’s probably fair to evaluate the success of a two-year college’s vocational or technical programs based on their graduation rates. But a large number of our students—up to half or more, depending on the college—come to us with no intention of graduating from our institution. They want to pick up a certain number of credit hours—often around 30, or about a year’s worth—and then transfer to the four-year college of their choice with the idea of graduating from that institution.

Even transfer-oriented students who stick with us for the full two years—which is the minority of such students—often don’t go to the trouble of applying for the associate degree. It just doesn’t mean that much to them.

Is that a "failure" on the students’ part? On ours? I don’t see how. A student who leaves us and then graduates with a four-year degree has succeeded, and we’ve played a major role in that success.

The same is true for: dual-enrollment students who just want to pick up college credit for a course or two while they’re still in high school; for non-English-speaking students who need to polish their language skills before going on to a four-year institution; or for retirees taking classes to enrich their lives. Those are all successes, and they must be counted as successes in any fair and meaningful metric.

Don’t punish two-year colleges for doing what they’re designed to do. Another major difference between two-year and four-year institutions has to do with the "input" I mentioned above, which is to say, the academic quality of our students. I’m not knocking community-college students when I point out that they are, on average, not as well prepared academically as students entering four-year institutions. That’s simply a fact.

These days, two-year colleges are seeing a lot more students who could have gotten into a state university, and some who probably could have been accepted anywhere. But we still get a lot of underprepared students coming out of high school, along with large numbers of returning adults who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in 10 or 20 years. Almost all of them need remediation of some sort. Altogether, such students comprise about 40 percent of our total population (and maybe a little more, depending on the college).

That’s a good thing. Two-year colleges, the most egalitarian of academic institutions, were created to serve students in such categories. Lord knows nobody else is serving them, unless they can run really fast or jump really high. If it weren’t for two-year colleges with open-door admissions policies and low tuition, many of those students wouldn’t be able to attend college at all. So our colleges are doing precisely what they were designed to do.

So why are we constantly getting beaten up for our "failures" with students who were already struggling academically long before they came to us?

It seems to me that two-year colleges are being held accountable for the failures of the public school system, not to mention the failures of society. We are trying to save as many of those struggling students as we can. A cargo ship that came to the aid of a sinking ocean liner and proceeded to pull as many people out of the water as possible would be widely praised, not faulted because it couldn’t rescue everyone.

So here’s the metric I would propose: Students who start in remedial courses at two-year college and don’t go on to graduate or transfer should not count against the college’s "completion" rate. Meanwhile, students who begin in remedial courses and do graduate or transfer should count. That will motivate faculty and staff members to do everything in their power to help those students succeed, without penalizing us for not constantly working miracles.

Some readers might assume I’m opposed to the federal government’s completion agenda and its state-level spin-offs. Not at all. I just want to see us approach college completion in a way that makes sense and is fair to all campuses—especially those on the front lines of our battle to create a more educated citizenry.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.