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Moneyball for evaluating community colleges

From an interesting statistics-laden piece by “Dean Dad”:

Far more community college students transfer prior to completing the Associate’s degree than actually complete first. According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about 350,000 transfer before completion, compared to about 60,000 who complete first.

That matters in several ways.

Most basically, it suggests that measuring community colleges by their graduation rates misses the point. A student who does a year at Brookdale before transferring to Rutgers, and subsequently graduating, got what she wanted, but she shows up in our numbers as a dropout. In states with “performance funding,” the community college could be punished for her decision, even if it was what she intended to do all along. . .

People who only look at “headline” numbers, and don’t bother with the asterisks, look at graduation rates and assume that something is going horribly wrong. But a ratio of 35 to 6 is such a honker of an asterisk that failing to account for it amounts to misrepresentation. . . .

My preferred measures of community college performance would be based on actual student behavior. For example, does the percentage of bachelor’s grads in a given area with community college credits roughly match the percentage of undergrads who are enrolled at community colleges? (Nationally, it does.) If so, then the idea of community colleges as dropout factories is hard to sustain. For programs not built around transfer, how are the employment outcomes? I wouldn’t look at loan repayment rates, just because the percentage of students with loans is so low; it’s a skewed sample. I would look at achievement gaps by race, sex, age, and income. I would look at ROI for public investment, as well as at local reputation. . . .

And a bunch more. I don’t know much about the world of education policy: Maybe some of these things are already being measured? Seems important, in any case.


  1. Laesner says:

    “… I don’t know much about the world of education policy”

    — there’s nothing objective to know … it’s more accurately specified as “education politics”

    What is the primary reason for the existence of community colleges ?

    What would happen if there were no community colleges ?

    • In California at least, Primary reason for CC seems to be as a reduced cost path to transferring to CSU and UC schools, and a path that doesn’t put much emphasis on HS grades. Further, they offer a lot of certificate programs to help people with job skills, landscape architecture, biology lab technician, electronics repair, whatever.

      My experience was that while there were some underperforming students, all the highest motivated most driven ugrad students I ever met we’re at community colleges. Without them we’d probably have a much undereducated populace due to the ridiculously high cost increases of education over the last 30 yrs

  2. Terry says:

    Community colleges are severely underappreciated. In my state (Ohio), it is much easier to get into Ohio State as a transfer from a community college than it is to get in as a graduating high school senior. (That’s how I did it years ago, and I hope people don’t find out about this until my kids are safely into college.) Then, you pay almost nothing for the first two years. The first two years of college at a public school are mostly factory courses anyway. Plus, many high school graduates aren’t really ready to live on their own.

    • gdanning says:

      +1 re community colleges being under appreciated. I taught high school in a public high school in Oakland, CA for many years, and had tons of bright, motivated students who were not ready for a 4-year college, usually because they were not native English speakers and needed to continue to improve their language skills. And then there were kids who were immature or hanging out with the wrong crowd when they were in 9th or 10th grade, and finally matured but too late to acquire the credentials to be admitted to a 4-year college. And, I am sure there are people who don’t grow up until they are 20 or 25 or even older, or who thought they would be happy on a noncollege track but now want to get into another career that requires a college degree. Community colleges do extremely important work.

  3. gdanning says:

    That blog post seems to be rather misleading, or at least rather superficial. The actual study (here notes that a large proportion of students who transfer from 2-yr colleges move to other 2-year colleges (of students who start at 2-yr colleges, 41 pct went to 4-yr colleges and 39 pct went to other 2-yr colleges), and that geography was a substantial factor – 18 percent of those who started at 2-yr colleges and then transferred went to a school in a different state. So, it seems to me that the numbers are not quite so scary as the blog post makes them seem. (BTW, the only quote in the blog post is from the very first paragraph of the study publisher’s press release ( – the blog post’s author doesn’t seem to have even read the executive summary of the entire report)

  4. My mother, who taught for many years at a second-tier State University, has often complained that conventional graduation rate metrics are wildly inaccurate at such places precisely because students often finish degrees at different places from where they started.

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