The proposed consolidation of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges began as a strategy to save money, but recently, the proponents are trying to justify their plan using the excuse of reportedly low graduation and completion rates.   Although the improvement of these indicators will always be a worthy and necessary goal, it is also essential to expose that the current method for reporting graduation and completion rates at community colleges is not appropriate or even fair.

Estela Lopez

Graduation rates were defined for traditional colleges and universities that accept students in fall and are expected to graduate them in four, or no more than six consecutive years.  Many of these students live in dorms and follow a linear trajectory in their college experience. However, as Patricia McGuire president of Trinity Washington University recently wrote: “Many of the data sets are premised on an increasingly outmoded model of collegiate attendance formed in the days when the majority of college students were full-time, residential 18- to-22-year-olds with parents paying their bills.”

Community Colleges have a different mission.  They are open enrollment institutions that accept students in both fall and spring, yet those students who enter in spring are not counted as part of the graduation rate methodology.  When the economy is good, community college students take advantage of the availability of jobs and tend to attend classes part time, but once again, part time students are not counted in the graduation rates. Most community college students do not attend in a linear way. Instead, their pattern of attendance is referred to as “swirling” because they tend to move from full time status to part time and attend two or more institutions.

For many students, community colleges are transfer institutions.  These students enter with the goal of completing the first two years or less of bachelor degree requirements before transferring to a university that grants such degrees.  Data show that a majority of students who transfer to a university from Connecticut community colleges do so without completing an associate degree.  Although these students are successful, they are not counted in the graduation rates and are therefore defined as failures for the college where they originally enrolled.

“The Student Achievement Measure (SAM) is an improved way to report undergraduate student progress and completion by including a greater proportion of students as well as tracking students who enroll in multiple higher education institutions.” (From 2013 Student Achievement Measure). Using this methodology to track student movement provides a very different picture of what happens at Connecticut community colleges and demonstrates that instead of failure there is much to celebrate.

The table below provides compelling data using SAM that show success:

All students starting fall 2012*

GraduatedStill EnrolledTransferStatus UnknownTotal Graduates and Transfers
Capital CC:
Manchester CC:
Naugatuck Valley CC:
Norwalk CC:

*SAM data provided by the CT State Colleges and Universities System

For all the above community colleges, both the number of graduates and transfer students total above 50%. The table also indicates that 6% to 10% of the students are still enrolled.  These numbers certainly do not represent failure, but a demonstration that the community colleges are fulfilling their mission of access and transfer. Those of status unknown may be working or enlisted in the armed forces.  Many of them will probably return later as adult learners.

It is also important to remember that the student population in all the above colleges is diverse with a significant proportion of students of color.  Three of these colleges, Capital, Naugatuck Valley and Norwalk are Hispanic Serving Institutions which means than more than 25% of their student body is Hispanic. Two of the colleges, Capital and Naugatuck Valley have also been recognized at the national level for their success in educating adult students.

In addition to the right methodology of measuring outcomes for institutions that promote multiple forms of attendance, it is important to consider evidence based research practices that impact persistence and completion and, thus, graduation rates.

Research on persistence and student success indicates a number of critical constructs that influence student performance.  These are academic advising, social connectedness, student involvement, faculty and staff approachability, learning experiences, and student support services. Vincent Tinto, a renowned retention scholar, has demonstrated the critical role classroom practices play in improving retention among all students. All these practices are campus based and not connected or dependent on a statewide college consolidation model. These practices need to be supported through resources at the campus so faculty and staff can promote effective student engagement.

For students of color, research also shows the importance of having faculty of color in the classroom, where they can serve as role models. Peer interactions and mentoring have been proven successful strategies to retain male students.

The proposed consolidation does not address the hiring of additional faculty to lessen dependence on adjuncts or the increase of faculty of color. It does not address increasing resources at the campus level to strengthen both the classroom and support areas.  It does not address increasing work study funding so students can work at the campus instead of an outside job that will distract them from their studies.

Research has identified what make a difference in retaining and graduating students.  It has nothing to do with an administrative structure that is centralized.  It does have to do with a campus setting that provides the appropriate learning environment and adequate support services.  That is what will enable the fulfillment of the mission of community colleges; that is what will ensure student success and higher graduation rates.

Estela Lopez of East Hartford is vice-chairman of the State Board of Education.

Join the Conversation


  1. Judging community colleges by the same standards as four-year institutions has long been a common misconception held by elected officials and policy makers. Thanks to Estela Lopez for setting the record straight.

  2. Judging community colleges by the same standards as four-year institutions has long been a common misconception held by elected officials and policy makers. Thanks to Estela Lopez for setting the record straight.

  3. The article makes all very good and valid points. However, it is nearly impossible for the community colleges to improve retention and graduation rates without the elementary and secondary schools graduation a higher percentage of students who are academically prepared in math, english, reading, writing and science for college level courses. It is unreasonable to expect the community colleges to make up for 12 years of academic deficiency with the elementary and secondary school system.

    1. Additionally, college faculty do not have full academic years to work with students. We have about 16 weeks to work with very diverse groups of students with vastly different educational and life experiences.

  4. I was sorry to see the NAACP endorse Students First (so-called) because this centralization and the hiring of CEOs and more administrators will hurt the community colleges. This editorial raises critical points about the nature of our community colleges that legislators and the governor seem to ignore.

  5. Judging community colleges by the same standards as four-year institutions has long been a common misconception held by elected officials and policy makers. Thanks to Estela Lopez for setting the record straight.

    1. There are at least two ways to express graduation data. The first, as required by the DOE, is to monitor the time of graduation for first time full time freshmen who begin and earn a degree at the same institution. The second is to provide annual data on the number of students earning a degree. The later will include transfers, part timers, students who take a leave and many other categories. Combining these two metrics provides a good analysis for campus performance.

  6. One of the initiatives that the BOR is putting out is to have a 250:1 case manager to student ratio. Case managers? Students are now cases. That would be scores of new hires (but not faculty) at the colleges. I would like to see 75% of those positions put in birth to 5 education. Investing in early childhood education would make a real difference in community college graduation rates.

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