11/20/2013 10:33 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Overrating Graduating?

An interesting report from takes aim at a growing focus on graduation rates as an indicator of a successful college. I have been very vocal about the many reasons students attend a community college and that graduation rates should not be the measure of our success. I am not alone in thinking this way, and this Slate article agrees.

In addition, Jon Marcus, the Higher Education editor for the Hechinger Report, recently stated that a different way of looking at completion rates paints a stronger picture for community colleges. While the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 18 percent of community college students complete their degrees within three years, the National Student Clearinghouse found that of the one in four students who start at community colleges and then transfer, 60 percent of them ultimately graduate, and another 8 percent are still enrolled but are taking a bit longer to finish.

The American Association of Community Colleges contends that if you count students who finish 30 or more credits at community colleges before transferring and earning a bachelor's degree, the community college graduation rate would be around 40 percent.
These numbers must be considered if graduation rates are the sole focus of educational success. But the report takes it a step further and says that failure may be "underrated" and community colleges are actually an advantage that the American education system has over its world counterparts.

Gururaj Deshpande, who co-founded the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT and the Deshpande Foundation, recently received the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship Lifetime Achievement Award. He compared the uniqueness of community colleges to educational systems in other countries, such as India, where testing determines whether a person enters the educated class or the working class. In South Korea, testing is the only entry point into higher education, and private schools that prepare students for these tests are a billion-dollar industry there. The Wall Street Journal reported on one tutor in South Korea who makes $4 million annually.

Conversely, in the U.S., students are allowed to either fail or drop out - and then return at a later date. It's not an all or nothing situation. Students can drop out of high school but make their way back through the GED and can even keep going all the way to eventually earning a Ph.D. A community magazine from my own institution featured a cover story on one such student a few years back. While we don't want our students to fail, we also don't want to turn prospective students away because of past failures. How often have we heard stories of students who received terrible grades in high school, dropped out and spent years in the workforce only to return to school and earn top grades? There are countries where this is not an option.

Community colleges also provide the distinct advantage of opening doors to higher education through cost, accessibility and flexibility in programming. We realize that students drop out of school for many reasons besides grades. A new or lost job, health concerns, a change in child care or any number of other situations can force a student to stop attending school. In addition, community college students are doing something called "swirling." This is when a student either attends multiple institutions at the same time or mixes traditional coursework with internships and co-op programs or even courses offered through such providers as edX.

Whether it's quitting school and returning at a later date or "swirling," these students take more time to complete their education. We are happy to serve this population, even if they work against community colleges when graduation rates within a certain time period are considered measurements of our success.

It's interesting that the author in the article connects the community college movement of the 1960s -- conceived as a way for greater access to education -- and the push for affordable education today, which essentially has the same goals in mind. We certainly want our students who are pursuing a credential to earn it. But we also want to help those students who come here for other reasons, and community colleges are doing an excellent job of serving these students as well.