Say there, Community Colleges: How’s your graduation rate faring?

Photo: Texas Association of Business

It’s a tough world today, out there in higher ed.

Each college has to balance the needs of the students, the faculty and staff, state and federal governments, the ranking agencies, alumni, and more — all with higher scrutiny and lower funding.

What happens when one of those audiences is unhappy? Sometimes private action is taken:  a student drops out, an alum stops sending donations, a tenured prof departs for greener grass. Other times, such as in Texas this year:  a stakeholder publicly declares dissatisfaction.

The Texas Tribune reported in Graduation-Rates Campaign heads to Dallas,

A new billboard that will tower over Dallas’ North Central Expressway on Monday offers a startling message: “8% OF DCCCD STUDENTS GRADUATE IN 3 YRS. IS THAT FAIR TO THE STUDENTS? TX ASSN OF BUSINESS.”

DCCCD is the Dallas County Community College District. The Texas Association of Business is an advocacy group for Texas business owners that has made lagging graduation rates at the state’s higher education institutions a pet issue.

In October, the group put up a similar billboard in Austin for one day that took on Austin Community College, saying “4% OF ACC STUDENTS GRADUATE IN 3 YEARS. IS THAT A GOOD USE OF TAX $? TX ASSOCIATION OF BUSINESS.”

Austin Community College President Richard Rhodes responded that the measurement doesn’t match what students come to the community college for, since the rate is based upon first-time, full-time students, which is 5.5% of the student population. The President’s response can be seen here in a six minute video. [Thanks to the Chronicle of Higher Ed blog for the story.]

Meanwhile, The Aspen Institute honored top community colleges in a ceremony this week, awarding the top prize ($600,000) to Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. Four other community colleges received $100,000 each and five more were recognized as finalists. The criteria:

  • high completion rates
  • employment of graduates
  • commitment to low-income and minority students
  • record of transfers to four-year schools

According to the story in College Bound, Education Week‘s blog,

Valencia President Sandy Shugart said while the college had a long commitment to access, it is transforming its promise from “volume to value.” The emphasis is on graduating more students, through rigorous programs so they are prepared not just to serve, but lead in the workplace, he said.

Student performance improved once the administration let go of its assumptions about the way the institution should run and focused on the perspective of students, said Shugart. “The college is what the students experience, period. That’s the only thing that counts,” he said, after accepting the prize.

Valencia’s website provides the details on their graduation rate, as well as the national average:

In selecting Valencia as the best community college in America, Aspen officials noted that over half of the college’s full-time students graduate or transfer within three years of entering the school, a rate significantly higher than the national average (51 percent versus 39 percent).

Both of these articles — the College Bound blog post and the Valencia College press release — provide an interesting look at the initiatives community colleges have pursued to better serve their students and their communities.

Our local CC, Piedmont Virginia, posts its consumer information here. In a downloadable pdf from that link, PVCC quotes a 67% fall to fall retention rate for full time students, and a 22% graduation rate (first-time, full-time students, within 150% of normal time to completion). In a separate document, available for download from that pdf, PVCC reports on employment of CTE graduates (another important role the CC provides to the community and the Commonwealth of Virginia):

82% of AAS, CERT, and CSC graduates (659 graduates in the past five years) were employed within the first two full quarters following graduation.

PVCC is experiencing record-breaking enrollment, attributed by the President, Frank Friedman, to growth in online and dual enrollment courses.

One final thought from the Valencia President, via CCWeek:

The award, Shugart said, proves that community colleges have come of age and that “excellence (in education) is not defined by exclusivity or expensiveness.”

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