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Inclusive Pathways to Success: Why Community Colleges Require Different Criteria

Community College Insights
July 2, 2024


When the Richmond Fed began the first pilot phase of the Survey of Community College Outcomes (SCCO), one objective was to generate a measure of success tailored to community colleges. As we've written before, the 150 percent time to completion graduation rate published by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is widely used to compare institutions in all sectors of higher education. Community colleges serve a broad cross-section of students with different educational goals and timelines than four-year institutions, so we developed a measure of community college success that reflects the fundamental differences in how community college students participate in higher education.

But community colleges are not a monolith. Because they are mission-driven to serve their local students and educate workers for the employers in their respective regions, these institutions are as unique as the communities they serve. The IPEDS graduation rates are a reasonable barometer of student performance for most four-year institutions, but community colleges differ from four-year institutions in ways that make the IPEDS graduation rate exclude much of the work community colleges do and many of the students they educate. Community colleges are adept at meeting students where they are and supporting them on whichever paths they choose. This means that success will look different across institutions. As we look toward a new round of SCCO data analysis coming this fall, we revisit the Richmond Fed success rates from our 2023 survey and illustrate how community colleges succeed in different ways.

2023 Richmond Fed Success Rate

In 2023, we collected data on 63 community colleges across Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and South Carolina. Each institution's success rate is comprised of three different pathways a student can take: earning a degree or credential (either terminal or transfer-oriented), transferring to a four-year institution before earning a degree or credential, or persisting by remaining in good standing at the institution. These outcomes are measured over a four-year period after enrolling in the college and use a broader cohort than the IPEDS graduation rate. For these reasons, the Richmond Fed success rate is not directly comparable to the IPEDS graduation rate, but we show them side by side to illustrate the limitations of using a single definition of success for community colleges. The overall IPEDS graduation rate for the 63 community colleges in our survey was 30 percent in 2022. The Richmond Fed success rate across those same community colleges was 51 percent. For comparison, the aggregate IPEDS graduation rate for four-year public colleges and universities in the Fifth District was 68 percent.

Success rates vary widely across schools, of course, but there are ways in which students succeed that are similar across institutions with similar characteristics. These patterns illustrate the importance of using a more inclusive approach to assessing the extent to which a community college fulfills its role.

The Benefit of Recognizing Different Pathways to Success

One framework used to classify higher education institutions across student type, program offerings, and campus settings is the Carnegie Basic Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education. To categorize community colleges, Carnegie uses IPEDS to divide schools into three categories based on whether the degrees and certificates students earn are more transfer-oriented or more workforce-oriented:

  • High Transfer: Institutions where fewer than 30 percent of degrees and certificates are in career and technical programs
  • Mixed Transfer/Career & Technical: Institutions where 30-49 percent of degrees and certificates are awarded in career and technical programs
  • High Career & Technical: Institutions where more than 50 percent of degrees and certificates are awarded in career and technical programs

Among the three categories, High Transfer schools have the highest combined success rate and the largest gap between the success rate and the IPEDS graduation rate. The largest share of student success among these institutions is students who transfer prior to earning an award, which follows their Carnegie classification and aligns with what we hear from community college leaders. Many students who attend community colleges with plans to transfer to four-year institutions do so before earning associate degrees or certificates at their community colleges. These students are not included in the IPEDS graduation rate despite progressing on their chosen postsecondary path.

On the other hand, the aggregate success rate at High Career & Technical schools is dominated by students earning degrees or certificates. This includes students who not only earn associate degrees or diplomas, but also who earn terminal or stackable credentials that prepare them to enter the workforce without a degree.

Within each of the three categories, there is significant variation in rates and components of success across schools. There are many factors that contribute to individual student success, including academic preparedness, socioeconomic status, and responsibilities outside of school like caregiving or full-time work. On top of that, there are state, regional, and institutional characteristics that affect a school's success rate (and its graduation rate), like policy, funding, community assets and infrastructure, and local partnerships.

It is important to note that all outcomes in the charts above are based on students enrolled in credit programs. This represents just a fraction of overall enrollment at community colleges — a share that is likely to shrink as employers, students, and policymakers are increasingly calling on community colleges to provide shorter-term programs designed to supply the pipeline of workers for high-demand jobs.

We have written about the benefits of offering non-credit programs, but there are trade-offs. Inconsistent data collection and reporting on enrollment, demographics, and outcomes of non-credit students makes demonstrating the value of these training programs difficult. As a result, students enrolled in non-credit training and education are excluded from critical financial resources, including Title IV aid (Pell Grants and federal student loans) and are often excluded from wraparound services provided by the college. Unless institutions have the capacity and resources to collect information on students who may enroll for just a short time, many community colleges will likely be unable to produce the robust data on students earning non-credit workforce credentials.

Looking to the 2024 SCCO and Beyond

The 2024 SCCO data collection and processing is underway. When we share our findings from the survey later this year, we will be able to include data on all community colleges in the Fifth District. We are looking forward to leveraging a larger sample to dissect our success rate data in new and exciting ways this year. Since community colleges serve many adult students looking to reskill or upskill, we are collecting new data on enrollment and success by age. We also plan to gain deeper insight into the types of awards students are earning by collecting data separately on associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas.

In our conversations with community college leaders, we consistently hear that the primary barriers to student success are not academic but more often "life getting in the way." In addition to collecting quantitative data, we have launched a separate effort to better understand the wraparound services community colleges provide to support students on their pathways to success.

Importantly, our success rate calculations will focus on a cohort of students who enrolled in community colleges during the 2019-2020 academic year. This will offer a first look at how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted students' postsecondary journeys at Fifth District community colleges. By collecting information on community colleges annually, we aim to illustrate the evolving role these institutions play and underscore the importance of using timely, accurate, and comprehensive data to assess their value to their communities, students, and the workforce.

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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