The Uncounted

Some people lose hours of time on social-media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter. My latest time suck is The Chronicle’s new interactive tool on college completion. First, I examined the graphs and charts for my own community college, then for the research university where I study, and then for any college or university I’ve ever attended, worked at, or driven by.

As I browsed, I was pleased by the inclusion of Sara Lipka’s piece on the many students who “don’t count” because they fall outside the definition tracked by national data-collection systems, which only include first-time, full-time students who begin college in the fall, never transfer, and earn a degree in no more than three years for an associate degree or six for a bachelor’s. A pie chart shows the proportions of these students for each institution, and for whom outcomes are unknown. My explorations turned up community colleges with ranges from 20 percent to over 40 percent of students in that “unknown outcome” category.

To further complicate the picture, many students come to a community college with no intent to graduate. Even so, these students often matriculate in a degree program in order to receive financial aid. Such students are often changing careers, coming to the community college for prerequisite courses, and then leaving as soon as they are eligible for a four-year institution. Others may enroll in a specific technical-skill program and then leave once they have acquired the skill to gain a job or promotion.

These students look like “dropouts” (and therefore failures) in institutional data, but in fact they accomplished their goals. Certainly, such goals fall within the historical mission of the community college to provide access, education, and training to a diverse population of students, in order to prepare them to achieve a baccalaureate degree or to qualify for a better job.

Despite these omissions from the data, those charts are awfully seductive. Even with the accompanying caveat, they just look so darn factual. But between the 20-40 percent of students not counted, and the who-knows-how-many-more that shouldn’t be counted as failures, perhaps they should be approached like other social-media profiles. They can give you some information, but I wouldn’t go basing big decisions — like marriage, jobs, or, in our case, funding — on them.

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