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Speaking of the Economy
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Speaking of the Economy
June 8, 2022

A New Approach to Measuring Community College Outcomes

Audiences: Economists, General Public, Workforce Sector Leaders

Laura Ullrich and Jason Kosakow discuss how community colleges contribute to their local economies, especially rural communities, and how their new survey addresses knowledge gaps about these important contributions. Ullrich is a regional economist based at the Richmond Fed's Charlotte office and Kosakow is the Bank's survey director.



Tim Sablik: Hello, and welcome to Speaking of the Economy. I'm your host, Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed. My guests today are Laura Ulrich and Jason Kosakow. Laura is a senior regional economist at our Charlotte branch and Jason is the survey director for the Richmond Fed. They join me today to talk about a new survey they've developed to measure community college outcomes across the Richmond Fed's district.

Laura and Jason, thanks for being here.

Jason Kosakow: Thanks for having us.

Laura Ullrich: Thanks for having us.

Sablik: Laura, you were on the show last December talking about the role of community colleges. We'll put a link up to that show for anyone who's interested to go back and listen. But I was wondering if you could start by giving a quick recap and update for our listeners on that topic. Why are you and your fellow researchers here at the Richmond Fed interested in community colleges and what has been happening with community college enrollment since the pandemic began?

Ullrich: Community colleges are really incredibly important institutions. If you look at the services they provide, they serve a very wide range of students. This is from traditional age college students — the 18- to 22-year-olds — to no-credit workforce students who tend to be older, to high schoolers taking dual credit and dual enrollment courses.

They also serve as anchor institutions within their communities. This is especially evident in the more rural parts of our district. I always think of one of the rural community colleges I've visited that had the only computer lab in the county in one of the counties in South Carolina. So there really are important anchor institutions there.

The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate from Congress. The side of the mandate that often gets the most attention, especially in times like right now, is that of stable prices. That side of the mandate relates to inflation and interest rates. But the Federal Reserve also has the mandate to work towards maximum employment, and it's clear from prior research that education is strongly tied to employment outcomes. So we're really interested in the role that higher education and, more specifically in this case, community colleges play in creating the workforce to fill jobs today and also the jobs of tomorrow.

What have we been seeing recently? Well, typically, historically, enrollment in higher education increases during times of economic downturn or strife. That is not what occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is partially due to the fact a lot of schools had to shut down early on in the pandemic. Some students did not feel comfortable shifting to online learning. But we've seen pretty significant enrollment declines, especially in the case of community colleges.

Based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse, we can see undergraduate enrollment across all of higher ed fell by 3.6 percent in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. That was in the height of the pandemic. That decline was even more pronounced at community colleges — 3.6 percent decline overall, but community colleges fell by 10.1 percent. In fall 2021, enrollment fell even further at community colleges, declining an additional 3.4 percent.

Earlier this week, the National Student Clearinghouse just released their spring 2022 data. We might think that things are getting better. But actually, the spring 2022 data show even more concerning numbers. It shows that enrollment overall in community colleges nationwide had declined to 4.2 million students. As a comparison spring enrollment, spring 2019, was 5.1 million, so a huge decline. The rate at which enrollments declining accelerated in spring 2022. So overall, for public colleges and universities, enrollment fell more than 604,000 students. That's a 5 percent decline compared to the previous spring. But community colleges accounted for 351,000 of those students, so it was another drop of 7.8 percent. This is really alarming, right, because we've had this cumulative impact of just really significant enrollment losses.

I'll note Tim that it's really tempting, especially given the labor shortages we hear about and rising wages, to assume that less people are attending community college because wages are going up and you can easily get a job. That certainly is true for some people. But we can see that employment is still down in many communities compared to pre=COVID and labor force participation rates are still recovering. So I think it's hard to say that that's an overwhelming trend.

Sablik: Thanks very much for that overview and highlights. This is an important and evolving issue that we want to keep an eye on.

That leads us to our main topic of discussion today, which is this new survey that you developed to measure community college outcomes. Jason, can you talk a bit about what motivated you to develop this survey?

Kosakow: There's a lot of talk around community colleges and their role in workforce development, and Laura can speak a little bit better to this. We get asked the question, "Are community colleges doing a good job?" We don't really have a good way to answer this question.

The current system for assessing outcomes of community colleges is through something called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. It's a mouthful, so I'll just refer to it as IPEDS. The program is really good for assessing outcomes of traditional four-year schools but does a poor job of reflecting all the things community colleges are doing.

If you're a traditional high school student and you go into a traditional four-year institution, you get counted in IPEDS and it makes sense to look at graduation rates and things along those lines. However, many community college students are not full time, or they're also not first-time students. A lot of times it is their second, third or fourth time in a post-secondary educational institution. Those students are essentially ignored by IPEDS. That's a huge portion for some schools of their student body that's essentially being dropped out.

Additionally, some schools have a lot of noncredit students who may be earning a credential. They could be earning a certificate or getting some training to progress in their careers — something like a commercial driver's license, phlebotomist, things that are in demand — but they're considered noncredit. So that information is not captured by IPEDS as well. But at the same time, they are progressing in their career, they're adding to the workforce of that state. That information is not being really captured anywhere, at least at a macro level that we can assess.

The other thing to think about is high school students. In many areas, high school students are dually enrolled, so they might be trying to earn an associate degree or they're taking AP credit at a community college. There's not really a good way to assess that, even though some community colleges have a significant portion of the student bodies that are high school students.

So last year, Laura and I talked and we essentially agreed that we needed a better way to capture data for community colleges, especially if we get asked the question like, "Are community colleges doing a good job?" Because right now we say we think so, we don't know … maybe? This is not a satisfactory answer. We're not really thrilled with that answer. So, we took the initiative to come up with this idea of how do we better capture certain community college outcomes. That way when our bank president Tom or legislators, academics, school counselors or anyone who's just interested in community colleges, they can assess for themselves all the ways that these institutions are serving their students.

Sablik: That's great. What sort of data have you collected so far, and what have you learned?

Ullrich: It's been a process. We've been on this journey for about a year now and we think we've learned a lot already with a lot more yet to learn.

We started with forming a cohort of 10 community colleges across the Fifth District to create a pilot survey. We have at least one institution from each of our five states. We were really careful to make sure that we assembled a group of diverse schools, so we have five urban schools [and] five rural schools. We have some that are located on the eastern side of the District, some located on the western side of the District.

We had very in-depth interviews with each of the 10 schools with their presidents and also other leaders on institutional research so that we could learn about the data that they were already collecting and reporting and the data they wish they were able to collect and report. As Jason mentioned, IPEDS is a big reporting requirement for them. That's at the federal government level, that's part of the Department of Education. But also the state community college systems are collecting a lot of data too. So we had those conversations and we decided to build a survey that collected data across several broad categories.

I can summarize most of the data in four buckets. The first bucket are students enrolled in credit programs. These students are typically counted in IPEDS like Jason mentioned, but not necessarily all of them are because IPEDS' traditional cohort that they use only looks at full-time, first-time students. There's a lot of part-time students [and] a lot of non first-time students.

We collect enrollment data by race and gender and we create our own success metrics. We look not only just at graduation or transfer, but we also consider a student successful if they earn a certificate or licensure and also if they persistently remain enrolled. We look at it over a four-year period of time. You might be surprised how many students are still enrolled at the end of the four years because they're just taking maybe one class a semester and working full time. So, we create this new success metric and in order to calculate that, we created a cohort of students and we're including all students. It's not important to us whether they're part time or full time. If it's the first time they've been in college or the ninth time they've been in college, we count all students who come in four years ago and then look at their outcomes at the end of their four-year period.

So that's on the for-credit side.

Sablik: Mm hmm.

Ullrich: The second category is non-credit students. These are the students that Jason mentioned, things like CDL, commercial driver's license, or phlebotomy that he mentioned. These students are not currently counted at all in the IPEDS system. Actually, many of the states in our District are not collecting data on these students either. We knew this was going to be a much taller order because of this.

However, I will say that the non-credit data were harder to collect than we even initially expected. Some of our states do not fund these programs in a traditional way through state appropriations. They might provide buckets of money here and there, but they're not funded through a formula. And they've been viewed as profit centers over time.

This is more of what you might traditionally consider continuing education. But when we think of continuing education, we think of enrichment classes like a cake decorating class or photography classes. But many of these are actually not those types of classes. They are programs that are workforce skills that result in a licensure or certificate. At a lot of the schools, close to 50 percent of their enrollment or more is on the non-credit side.

Sablik: Wow. So that gets at a big blind spot in the existing data. Hopefully, that survey can answer that and help fill out this question about finding out how effective community colleges are being in their communities.

You mentioned there were two other buckets, too.

Ullrich: The third one is high school students. We knew that there were a lot of high school students attending community college through dual credit, dual enrollment programs. We knew that. We were surprised, though, amongst our pilot schools how many there were. We started out with 10 pilot schools, we received data from nine of them. Across the nine schools that we have data for, there were over 11,000 high school students served during the 2020-2021 school year. High school students accounted for more than 35 percent of total credit enrollment at some of our pilot schools.

It's really overwhelming to think about that these nine pilot schools issued 949 associate degrees or certificates to high schoolers that year. There are a pretty significant number of high schoolers every year in our District who graduate with their associate degree in early May and then their high school diploma in June. This provides students the ability to go in as juniors as they start college.

Right now, I collect data by age, so you can see the number of students under age 18. But you can't really identify if they're high schoolers or not, so we're trying to intentionally collect data on the high school students that are being served.

We don't think many people understand that role that community colleges are playing. This is especially important in rural areas where the high school you know, the K-12 system might have a hard time recruiting teachers that might be able to teach AP calculus, for an example. But if they can offer Calculus 1 at the community college on dual credit, it's an easy way to serve their students.

The fourth bucket, which is a smaller one but still important, is data on wraparound services. Traditionally, community colleges didn't provide a lot of student services outside of the academics. But that's been changing. They've been expanding service offerings in recent years to include things like health services, food pantries, transportation, other things. Currently, there's no data that we can find that collects these services across states. Our pilot indicates that almost all of our schools are providing certain services, namely health care and food pantries, but very few are offering others such as childcare. We're hoping collecting these data might allow us to see if provision of these services impacts enrollment or student success.

Sablik: That's interesting. Thanks for providing that overview.

I know it's still early in the process of gathering data and finding survey participants. But has anything kind of jumped out to you related to, say, the initial question that we started with about finding some metrics about the importance of community colleges, maybe either supporting a hypothesis you had before you started this project or maybe raising a new area that you'd like to investigate further.

Ullrich: I've learned a lot about community colleges while I've been working in the Fed the past three and a half years, so I never doubted the importance of community colleges. Certainly, Jason and I have both have learned a lot about the breadth of the programs that are offered across the District and the wide range of students that are being served. We've also become keenly aware that current data collection methods aren't really telling that story very well.

Many of the state funding models don't support the wide variety of programs either. In the Fifth District, Maryland [funds] credit and non-credit programs kind of equally. Their state scholarships can be used for credit or in high-demand, non-credit programs. But [in] the other states, there is some differentiation between funding models for credit and non-credit or non-credit is not funded at all. So we've learned a lot about that.

I think a lot of people view community colleges either as institutions that bridge students to four-year colleges through transfer programs, or they think of them as more traditional vocational or technical schools. In many places there's a stigma attached to attending the schools for those reasons.

That stigma is really misplaced, in my opinion. Community colleges provide unique workforce training programs that range from cybersecurity to underwater welding to commercial driver's license, right, like a whole host of things. Many of these certificates and licensures don't take four years to obtain, right? A CDL license or commercial driver's license, you can get it eight weeks. But it leads to a relatively high paying job with a potentially exciting career path. In one word, you could be an entrepreneur. In a fast-paced world like we're living in now, community colleges are actually really well poised to create a lot of these short-term job training programs in growth industries that don't fit our traditional view of community college. They look very different than what a lot of people have in their head.

So, I think our survey and the communications we've had with the schools tell us that District community colleges see serving this broad demographic of students and companies and industries as a key part of their mission. What we're trying to do is have the data collection mechanism to match that.

Sablik: Right. How about any learnings about the survey itself? Are there things that you found out and improvements that you'd like to make going forward?

Kosakow: Yeah, so we went into this knowing we aren't going to create the perfect data collection program. It's just not possible to capture every little thing community colleges are doing because the breadth of what they're doing is incredible. So, the perfect program in itself would be able to link every student to an outcome measure, such as income, employment, things along those lines, but those data aren't necessarily available in every state. And, it also could exclude students who may have transferred to a different state after finishing the program. There just wasn't a really good way to create this perfect program, so we knew going into this there's going to be some limitations. Also, a lot of the data we want to collect, schools are not collecting or they have it in multiple databases.

As Laura mentioned before, few schools are looking at non-credit student enrollment, even though it makes up a substantial portion of the student bodies. We're hoping that this program makes a lot of schools think more about how they're organizing or sorting their data. That way, they can think more about non-credit students and what those non-credit programs are achieving. Also, it just provides more information on that.

Additionally, I do feel like we are happy with the metrics we landed on. We spent a lot of time talking with these schools. We had 90-minute conversations with most likely the president of the institution and also their head of institutional research. We talked through what do they collect, what don't they collect, what did they believe to be indicators of the success. We got a lot of really great information and support from them. When we actually sorted through all the conversations, we came up with these metrics that we believe better represented how community colleges are serving their students in their communities. We brought that back to the institutions and they all agreed.

Our goal was not to create an overburden survey. We didn't want to create a three, four-hour program that would take up an entire day or weeks to fill out. We didn't want to do that. We wanted something that was pretty flexible and got at the information that we thought was important. The schools seemed to agree with that.

The things that we're thinking about now are how to expand the program to more schools. We had 10 pilot programs, we're hoping to expand this eventually to every community college in our District. Additionally, we're trying to figure out the best way to analyze all the results we've received. It is a pretty concise survey to collect information, but there's a lot of information. So, we're trying to figure out how do we show that information? How do we analyze it? How do we publish it? How do we visualize it so that anyone who's interested in the data, they can have easy access to it? That's something that we're really thinking about right now.

Sablik: How have the schools that are in the pilot program responded to the survey so far?

Kosakow: They all agreed that the current system for IPEDS for tracking community college success is not appropriate for them. They believe it's great for four-year institutions, but they want something that better shows what they're doing. They have a lot of internal metrics already that they report to themselves about how they're doing. But that information rarely gets out in public.

What they like about what we're doing now is we're an independent third party. We don't have any skin in the game. We're just trying to provide information. If that information is good for the schools, it's great. If it's not, it might help push them to think about how they're creating programs or what they're doing well and what they can improve on.

The schools themselves, they're very supportive. They were thrilled when they saw the results. They're very happy with it. We also presented this at a conference recently and we received a lot of positive feedback from nonprofit organizations that work in the educational space and they had a lot of follow-up conversations. People were excited about the metrics that we're interested in collecting because they understand that community colleges are dynamic. They do a lot more than just provide associate's degrees, so they're really appreciated that information that we are providing.

Sablik: Great. If there are any community college administrators that are happening to be listening to this show, how can they get involved in the survey if they're interested?

Kosakow: Sure. You can reach out to Laura Ullrich or me directly to get involved. We can provide our emails in the show notes. Also, we have a link you can use to sign up for yourselves, which we can post in the show notes. But that's just generic information like name, email, and institution so we can just get you all signed up.

Sablik: Perfect. Certainly, any of our listeners interested in keeping up with new releases of the survey can head over to as well. Check out the links in the show notes.

If you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider rating us and leaving a review on your favorite podcast app. That helps others discover the show as well.

Laura and Jason, I want to thank you both very much for joining me today to talk about this exciting research.

Ullrich: Thanks for having us.

Kosakow: Great to be here.