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Community College Graduation Rates in the Fifth District

Community College Insights
June 27, 2023

Graduation Rates

How successful are community colleges at educating students compared to their four-year counterparts in the Fifth Federal Reserve District? When evaluating institution and student success, it is important to first define success. A typical way that policymakers, students, press and the general public define success is by looking at graduation rates. As we previously discussed, these graduation rates are reported publicly by IPEDS and measure graduation within 150 percent of expected time to program completion using a limited cohort of students.

IPEDS data indicate that Fifth District community colleges have a graduation rate that is less than half that of their four-year counterparts. While four-year institutions graduate over 60 percent of students in their cohort within 150 percent of time to completion, that rate is approximately 30 percent for Fifth District community colleges.

Why Graduation Rates Matter

Graduation rates are an important way to convey success of higher education institutions. These metrics allow for comparisons across institutions and may play a role in resource allocation between them. Graduation rates are also used by guidance counselors, students and parents as they assess benefits of attending college. Additionally, companies could use graduation rates to help determine where to locate or expand their businesses. But community colleges play a very different role in higher education than traditional four-year colleges and universities. Using a uniform benchmark for all higher education institutions may mean community colleges are being measured by standards that are not really indicative of their success.

Are Community Colleges Really Less "Successful"?

So why are community college IPEDS graduation rates so much lower than those at four-year institutions? As we discussed in our last post, IPEDS graduation rates don't do an especially good job of measuring true community college success. The goals of students at four-year institutions may be quite different from the goal of community college students, and the cohort of students is quite limiting for community colleges.

Given these limitations, it is important to show alternate measures of community college student success. The Richmond Fed has created the Survey of Community College Outcomes to help better tell this story at community colleges in the Fifth District. Through this survey effort, in collaboration with our Fifth District community college partners, we look at success through a different lens using the Richmond Fed Success Rate. Our goal is to create a rate that can be used alongside, or independently, of graduation rates to convey student success at community colleges. Preliminary data show that this new definition of success puts community college performance on par with graduation rates of four-year colleges and universities. We look forward to sharing the full results of our success rate in the coming months as we collect more data throughout the Fifth District.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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