The effectiveness of our institutions of higher learning is closely correlated to the success of students. Historically, graduation rate has been a “go to” metric to capture both student success and institutional effectiveness, but in reality, relying only on a single measure of success fails to tell the whole story.

For at least the past 50 years, graduation rates have been computed using a “first-time-full-time” (FTFT) cohort population. In this computation, graduation rates are based on fall term enrollment of first-time degree or certificate-seeking undergraduates who register for full-time (12 credits or more per semester) study.  Students are counted as graduates if they graduate within 150 percent of the “normal” time frame for graduation.  That is, six years at four-year bachelor-degree granting institutions and three years at two-year associate-degree colleges.

The world of higher education was different 50 years ago, and the graduation rate was designed with a set of assumptions that have become outdated. For instance, it assumed that students (a) entered college directly from high school, (b) were between 18-24 years old, (c) came from families with enough resources for the student to be enrolled continuously, and (d) would complete their degree within four years at the same institution where they enrolled as freshman.

But enrollment patterns have changed dramatically in recent years, and these assumptions are no longer reflective of the student experience.  Students are taking longer to complete their post-secondary education, and more are transferring than ever before.  According to the National Student Clearinghouse (2017), of students who began college at two-year public institutions in fall 2008, 24.4 percent transferred to a four-year institution within six years and 15  percent transferred to two-year institutions (lateral transfer), for an overall transfer rate of 39.6 percent.  However,  if students transfer prior to earning a degree or certificate at their original school, neither the “sending” school or “receiving” school will get credit for such student persistence when compiling the graduation rate, even if they ultimately graduate.

Consequently, graduation rate is an increasingly controversial metric because the FTFT cohort is not representative of the wide range of ages, backgrounds, enrollment status, and goals that characterize the current state of college student population.  In other words, the graduation rate for a particular institution does not represent all portions of an institution’s student population.  While graduation rate is still a good measure for the FTFT cohort, that cohort is now a smaller portion of the student population -– particularly within the Connecticut community colleges.

As an example, while many advocacy groups and accrediting bodies continue to view graduation rates as the primary measure of student success, the fall 2019 entering class at the Connecticut community colleges had only 55% of its new students fit into the FTFT cohort.  In addition, 32% of the entire student body is full-time, suggesting that the aspirations of new students to be full-time are often altered by outside life circumstances or they transfer to another institution as they proceed through their post-secondary education.

For the FTFT students that started at Connecticut’s community colleges in 2015 the graduation rates at those institutions after three years ranged from 11% to 39%.  However, in 2013-14 there were approximately 11,500 students at four-year institutions that had been students at a Connecticut community college the prior year.  Three out of four (75%) of them transferred to a four-year institution without an associate’s degree in hand.  Because of the way rates are calculated, those students negatively affected the graduation rates at the community college and had no effect on the graduation rate at the four-year institution where they enrolled.  Because of multi-institution enrollment patterns, graduation rate has become a metric of an institution’s “holding” power, not necessarily a measure of students’ persistence.

To get a true indication of student success and institutional effectiveness, graduation rates need to be supplemented with other important indicators of college progress, such as college persistence, transfer and mobility, and certificate and degree completion.

Recently, new measures have been introduced to better track the enrollment patterns and actual success of students over a longer period of time. For instance, the Student Achievement Measure  tracks student movement across post-secondary institutions, provides a more complete picture of student progress and completion within the higher education system, and includes both full-time and part-time students.

Another characteristic of enrollment that has changed is related to providing access and opportunity to higher education for traditionally underrepresented minorities.  While minority access has improved nationally and in Connecticut, an achievement gap still exists.

In terms of enrollment, traditionally underrepresented minorities (Black/African American and Latinx), particularly Latinx, are becoming a larger portion of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) student population.  This has occurred while the whole student population has been decreasing in size in recent years, because of a number of factors including the declining absolute number of high school graduates in the state.   Traditionally underrepresented minorities are no longer disproportionately enrolled in any of the CSCU constituent units. The most dramatic example is within the community colleges.

However, when reviewing key performance indicators (KPIs) of academic momentum, much needs to be done to help our minority students succeed and close the achievement gap.  In terms of academic momentum, traditionally underrepresented minorities lag behind their white counterparts in credit accumulation, and consequently, may take a longer time to complete their program.

Figure 2

Connecticut Community College Student Success Key Performance Indicators (KPI) by Race/Ethnicity of Students as a Percent Distribution
 Average number of credits earned in the first year
WhiteHispanic/ LatinoBlack or African American
Fall 201315.112.711.6
Fall 201415.612.611.4
Fall 201514.912.511.3
Fall 201615.112.311.3
Fall 201715.312.111.3
Fall 201814.512.110.6
Generated by the CSCU Office of Research and System Effectiveness

Average number of credits earned in the first year is just one of  23 key performance indicators tracked for each of Connecticut’s two-year public institutions on an annual basis.  Looking at a number of of different indicators, not just graduation rate, is needed to zero in on where our opportunities for improvement exist. Given that 30 credits per year need to be obtained for a student to graduate on time, and 20 credits are needed to graduate within 150% of normal time, one can see that the average student, and particularly minority students, are not on track to graduate in a timely fashion.

To be very clear, despite the shortcomings of using only graduation rates as a measure of success, significant room for improvement remains, particularly for minority students – and real efforts to improve student success are underway at CSCU. Assisting students to succeed at our institutions has always been a moral imperative; their success is now also a strategic challenge to the health of Connecticut’s economy.

Today we have employers clamoring for workers with specific skill sets. Gov. Ned Lamont has recognized these challenges with the creation of the Governor’s Workforce Council. To help reinvigorate Connecticut’s competitive position in the national and world marketplace, CSCU must guide and support completion of an increasing number of students into academic programs with high employment demands, increase completion rates across all groups, close the achievement gap…and in a shorter period of time.

William J. Gammell, Ph.D. is the director of the Office of Research and System Effectiveness for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

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6 Comments

  1. The issue is not about how to calculate graduation rates. As the article rightfully points out there are many legitimate ways to compute a graduation or completer rate for the many different constituents that enroll in college.

    The primary issue in the CSCU System is the high percentage of students who enroll and drop out without a degree and large debt.

    We do not need to waste time convincing the public the many ways to calculate a graduation/completer rate. The CSCU System should be relentless on addressing the drop out rate and no degree and large debt problem.

  2. I agree with much of what this author says about all the factors that need to be taken into account when calculating student success. My own undergrad degree took me 8 years to complete because of working and moving. The BA I earned is no less a BA because of the time it took. But I do have questions about the statement that “real efforts to improve student success are underway at CSCU.” Mostly what gets touted is the Students First Plan, which will combine the community colleges. No evidence supports that this costly, administrative maneuver will support student success. In fact, the opposite outcome seems likely, based on evidence submitted in various Op-Ed’s to this newspaper in the past year.

  3. While the CSCU Sytem should be “relentless on addressing the drop out rate”, the System First initiative and its focus on an expensive consolidation, will fail in large measure due to scope of addressing the drop out rate and debt problem.

    The System is promoting 20th century solutions to solve a 21st Century problem. For example, as mentioned in the article, 32% of the student body are full time. This suggests that drop out rate is one symptom of the larger issues faced by students. Many community college students work and a significant number of them work full-time. Many community college students have children and parents that they are responsible for the care. Many community college students rely on public transportation that often puts with their work and school schedules into conflict. Many community college students are first generation students with no experience navigating higher education and its expectations and standards. Many community college students are adult first generation students born in other countries. An increasing number of community college students are facing housing issues and food insecurity.

    CT higher education institutions and its students have faced declining financial support by the legislature in CT during economic booms and economic recessions. No other higher education system in the nation has been in a decades long perpetual state of crisis as has Connecticut. Retention and completion are important goals. Yet, if the legislature and the CSCU system were serious about addressing the needs of today’s students in our diverse communities, they would end the almost yearly budget cuts, budget recessions, hiring freezes, and stop the expensive big government centralization of the colleges and make addressing the comprehensive needs of today’s students a priority.

    1. Hi Jackson Mc, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  4. Why do you refuse to post this comment? It is on point, and far more coherent and relevant that many of the posts you approve? Indeed, there has been a pattern over the past few months that my comments are never approved and disappear from the CTMirror website. Why? FC

    1. Hi Fred, we appreciate your thoughtful, on-point submissions, but we have a 1,000-character limit on all comments. Anything longer should be submitted to CT Viewpoints as an op-ed. Our full comments policy is available by link at the top of the comments section. If you have any additional thoughts or questions, please reach out to Bruce Putterman, our publisher, at publisher@ctmirror.org.

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