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Bank Shares New Success Metric for Community Colleges

Speakers on stage at the 2023 District Dialogues Community Colleges event.

By most traditional graduation assessments, community colleges seem to have vast room for improvement. However, data recently released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond shows the vital contributions these institutions consistently offer to their local communities and to the workforce — and shows that their success can’t be measured solely by graduation rates.

Here are some of the insights the data has revealed:

  • Students are utilizing community colleges in a wide array of ways to prepare for the workforce — including many facets that are not counted in other available metrics as “successful.”
  • At the schools included in the Bank’s extended pilot, 14.8% of students in the cohort transferred before getting a credential. These students are not counted as successful in traditional graduation rate metrics, even though they successfully transferred to a four-year institution to continue their education.
  • The Richmond Fed success rate at community colleges across the four states the Bank surveyed (Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and West Virginia) averaged 51.8%, which is 83% higher than traditional graduation rates indicate.

These findings from the Bank’s Survey of Community College Outcomes (SCCO) were shared on November 15 in an afternoon webinar attended by more than 200 professionals, and during an evening program open to the general public – District Dialogues: Preparing Our Workforce – The Evolving Role of Community Colleges.

Richmond Fed lead researcher Laura Ullrich opened the webinar by reminding the academic leaders, policymakers and community college stakeholders who listened in about the Federal Reserve’s maximum employment mandate. This mission, she explained, is why the Richmond Fed launched its community college research initiative three years ago.

“The more education you have, the more likely you are to be working, and the fewer periods of unemployment you are likely to ever experience,” said Ullrich, who is a senior regional economist for the Bank. “As baby boomers continue to retire, labor resources are becoming constrained. It’s going to be harder to meet the needs of local employers. My colleagues and I have talked with more than 50 community college presidents across the territory the Bank serves (Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina and most of West Virginia). They are feeling increasing pressure from employers to help them fill jobs.”

While the survey focused on the Bank’s primary territory, Ullrich indicated there is interest in both the data collection process and the intriguing findings from community college leaders across the nation.

Ullrich provided more context that evening, when she presented research findings to the in-person and virtual audience attending District Dialogues, the Bank’s signature public discussion series for fostering conversation on relevant topics.

While noting the 51.8% Richmond Fed success rate, she also shared that the average traditional graduation rate for community college students in the Fifth District is under 30%, compared with a graduation rate north of 60% for four-year colleges and universities.

“Community college students who don’t graduate in a traditional manner are not counted — which means the other positive outcomes gained from attending a community college are not showing up in these schools’ numbers,” Ullrich said. “The Bank’s research provided this opportunity.”

The survey data that Ullrich and her colleagues collected specifically tracks not only degree attainment, but also attainment of professional certifications and skilled licenses, successful transfers to four-year institutions and persistence in enrollment that community college leaders, employers and students consider successes.

At the schools included in the extended pilot, 8% of students in the cohort persisted and remained in good standing but did not earn a credential within four years of initial enrollment, which is the time frame used by the Richmond Fed survey to gauge success. These individuals may work full-time, be single parents, or have other responsibilities or disabilities that prevent them from taking a full course load.

Students who do not graduate with an associate degree, but earn an industry recognized credential, such as a certificate in diesel engine mechanics, before exiting a community college are considered a success in the Richmond Fed survey. Outreach to community colleges and employers indicated that often these shorter-term credentials are sufficient for the positive workforce outcomes students are seeking, and associate degree attainment may not be a student’s end goal.

Ullrich invited two community college presidents to join her onstage during her District Dialogues presentation, and before they shared their perspectives, both Dr. Van C. Wilson, with Brightpoint Community College in Chesterfield County, Virginia, and Dr. John J. Rainone, with Mountain Gateway Community College in Clifton Forge, Virginia, applauded the Richmond Fed’s efforts.

“Thank you for changing the narrative,” Wilson said. “We (community colleges) are an American institution designed to serve the diverse needs of its workforce.”

Rainone agreed: “Rural colleges are at the center of their communities. That is where things happen. Just imagine if we had a little more funding how many more students we could serve.”

While Ullrich, and Richmond Fed Regional Executive Renee Haltom, guided the conversation from the Bank’s Richmond office, Richmond Fed Regional Executive Andy Bauer hosted a “watch party” of the event in the Bank’s Baltimore branch. After Ullrich delivered her presentation, the Baltimore audience listened to a panel discussion of their own, which featured Dr. Cliff Coppersmith, president of Chesapeake College; Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County; and Dr. Brad Phillips, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

The Baltimore panelists also described how the career readiness and skills training their schools provide is highly valued by residents and employers in their regions of the state.

“A huge takeaway was the importance of our new survey in helping community colleges better demonstrate the breadth of what they do and their effectiveness,” Bauer said.

That enthusiasm spilled over into the audience in Richmond, where one attendee expressed surprise at the richness of the survey findings. Another audience member, a longtime community college leader, shared how his son obtained a certification from his local community college that helped increase his income enough to send his children to college.

“This data can help change things,” said audience member Quentin Johnson, president of Southside Virginia Community College. “We are making paths for people and helping change lives.”

While Ullrich noted that the Richmond Fed is an independent party in conducting and providing the research, she agreed with panelist and audience declarations that broader and more contextual information can help policymakers and legislators make more informed decisions about funding, and community college leaders and local employers provide more of what’s working.

“This is the kind of discourse and understanding that our Research department and our District Dialogues program will continue to foster,” said Sarah Gunn, the Richmond Fed’s director of Economic Education and host of District Dialogues.

Highlights of the Richmond Fed’s SSCO data are available on the Bank’s website and in these recordings of the November 15 webinar and the November 15 District Dialogues program. Additional information about this ongoing pilot is available on the Bank’s Community College Insights blog.

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