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How Lots of Community-College Data Fall Through the Cracks

Community colleges have recently been thrust to the forefront of higher-education policy. From state lawmakers pushing new ways to answer work-force needs, to President Obama’s proposal to make the colleges free, the attention on community colleges is sharpening.

Coverage of issues regarding community colleges has included a sprinkling of community-college statistics, some of which may be skewed by leaving out certain institutions that are traditionally thought of as community colleges.

For instance, take a 2013 study by the American Institutes for Research on the return on investment for associate degrees. The study included 579 community colleges, but it’s missing a huge group: community colleges that offer four-year degrees.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,132 community colleges in the United States, 986 of which are public institutions. Historically, those colleges have allowed students to stay in their local communities while receiving specialized training that local employers seek.

Yet the AIR study includes only seven of the 28 community colleges in Florida. The 21 other institutions are omitted because they offer at least one four-year degree.

Lacking Classification

The omission stems from a classification problem in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or Ipeds, which does not specifically identify “community colleges.” Instead, colleges are grouped by the highest level of degree offered at the campus and the sector. When researchers want to isolate data on community colleges, they often pull associate-degree-granting institutions or two-year colleges. But that approach excludes community colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees — even if they make up less than 1 percent of degrees conferred.

Of course this also causes a problem when classifying traditional colleges because some community colleges end up being counted with traditional four-year colleges and universities.

Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research at the community-colleges association, says this common mistake among researchers can skew their results.

And as more community colleges award bachelor’s degrees, the problem is likely to get worse. Mark S. Schneider, president of College Measures, a research partnership that investigates higher-education outcomes, says more than 20 states now allow community colleges to confer four-year degrees.

A Workaround

Despite having an imperfect system, Ipeds does offer some solutions that researchers who want to focus on community colleges may be overlooking.

For example, colleges that offer a bachelor’s degree can be narrowed to four-year institutions with bachelor’s degrees making up less than half of degrees conferred. The next step is to remove the private colleges. Samuel F. Barbett, a mathematical statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics, says the remaining colleges are mostly four-year community colleges.

While the process is not exactly simple, Barbett says it’s the best option, especially since a community-college classification is unlikely to be coming down the pike anytime soon.

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