Report: Community college graduation rate lags

As legislators and education officials grapple with questions of how to get the best returns on taxpayers’ investment in public colleges and universities, a new report released Wednesday shows the community colleges have one of the worst “success rates” in the nation.

“The biggest concern that comes out of this [report] is that Connecticut invests at a very high level compared to other states … one would expect a better return from a higher investment,” said Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.

The state pays about $7,000 a year for each full-time student enrolled in one of the 12 two-year community colleges — but only one out of every 10 full-time students who enroll seeking an associates degree or certificate will earn one in three years. That ranks Connecticut’s community college graduation rate 47th in the nation, according to the report by the state Department of Higher Education.

When students who transfer to another institution are added to those who graduate, Connecticut’s community colleges still rank well below the national average. Overall, one out of every three full-time, first-time students completes a degree or certificate or transfers to another school in three years.

Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for the 58,000 full- and part-time student community college system, said many factors contribute to the low rate.

“Connecticut has the highest achievement gap in the nation,” she said, referring to the wide disparity in test results between minority and non-minority students. Thirty-five percent of the current students at the community colleges are black or Hispanic, compared to 15 percent at the University of Connecticut and 17 percent at Connecticut State University System.

“Too many students that come to us need remedial courses to be successful here,” Cox said. “For these at-risk students to enroll, enter the college and persist and succeed in college level study, complete certificate and degree programs, is a daunting challenge for them and for the colleges that serve them.”

Four out of every five students who enroll in community colleges need to take a reading, English or math course to learn material they should have picked up in high school so they are prepared for college-level courses.

In an effort to increase the graduation rates, Cox said the colleges have implemented several interventions: including increasing tutoring, career and transfer counseling, mentoring and tracking students progress more closely.

The six-year graduation rates at the University of Connecticut and Connecticut State University System are above and on par with the national rates, respectively. CSUS graduates 46 percent of their students in six years and 19 percent in four years. UConn graduates 74 percent in six year and 57 percent in four years, reports the SDHE.

“We are hoping we will continue to improve the amount of students we graduate. That’s a real priority,” said Louise Feroe, acting chancellor of CSUS.

Cox said while the 10 percent graduation rate of full-time, first-time students at the community colleges may raise concerns, it is important to take into consideration part-time students and those who graduate in six years.

She says that brings the colleges “success rate” up to almost half the students that enroll. And even for those who did not complete their education, Cox said that 57 percent left college having made academic progress.

“These students either met their unique goal or found life circumstances too challenging to be able to continue to completion,” she said.

Meotti acknowledged that the report only counts full-time community college students that enter school for the first time –60 percent of students attend part-time–but said “it still has relevance… If they use the dollars right, then there are still so many opportunities to get the results we desire as a state.”

And during a time that state lawmakers are considering drastic cuts and a major reorganization to higher education, he said, the report could be a useful reference for state lawmakers.

“Are we just wasting our money?” asked Meotti. “The key question is, are you using the dollars right? We should be able to answer that.”