Community Colleges

What Really Happens at Community Colleges? A Tool Taps Data for Answers

October 22, 2014

How do community-college students move from their first class to their first job? Plenty of educators and analysts would like to know more about that process.

A research institute called RTI International said on Monday that its newly revamped web tool could provide answers. The tool, known as The Completion Arch, is an effort to provide a data-driven look at the experiences of the nation’s approximately 10 million community-college students.

The Completion Arch brings together 500 measures drawn from federal and state data about colleges across the country, such as students’ transfer rates to four-year institutions, how many students are placed in remedial courses, and the average time it takes them to earn a degree.

The tool aims to track students’ success at five stages: when they enroll, when they receive developmental-education placement, when their "intermediate progress" can be evaluated, when they transfer or complete a degree, and when they enter the work force.

But while the data assembled by RTI researchers are extensive, much of the state-level information available on the project’s website is missing or incomplete. At an event on Monday to discuss the new tool and how colleges can use it, RTI officials said that was deliberate.

"We understand both its limitations and how data can be used to tell a story," said Laura J. Horn, who directs the institute’s Center for Postsecondary Education Research and the Completion Arch project.

By assembling the data into a single publicly available resource, they hope to encourage state legislatures to see the Completion Arch as a work in progress. With additional money, project officials say, they could create a more complete picture of student experiences at local community colleges.

State legislators are becoming increasingly data-savvy, said Julie Davis Bell, education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. As state lawmakers and Obama-administration officials continue to focus on community colleges as the gateway to higher education for many students, Ms. Davis Bell said the Completion Arch would be a useful tool for policy makers.

"The power of the Completion Arch is not what’s there but what’s missing as well—how can I begin to add my own data?" said Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community College of Spokane, at Monday’s event.

Ms. Johnson said having the data compiled into a single resource would encourage collaboration between educators and local businesses. She pointed to a job-training program offered by Boeing to community colleges in Washington State that was financed by a four-year, $20-million grant from the Department of Labor in 2011.

Tools such as the Completion Arch—which RTI originally introduced in 2012—would also provide data on successful practices that other colleges could emulate, the researchers said.

"In education, we sanction people for not performing," said Steven G. Klein, director of the Center for Career and Adult Education and Workforce Development at RTI. "We need to reward people for success."