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Broader Look at Completion Shows Community College Gains

In the past two decades, the percent increase in credentials awarded at community colleges has been double the percent increase in enrollment, and improved minority student performance is narrowing the achievement gap, a policy brief released Wednesday from the American Association of Community Colleges shows.

"The Road Ahead: A Look at Trends in Educational Attainment at Community Colleges" by Christopher M. Mullin, a program director for policy analysis at AACC, is welcome news for a sector that has been stretched with an influx of students, dwindling resources, and perceptions of low graduation rates.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of degrees and certificates awarded by community colleges increased by 127 percent, while enrollment increased by 65 percent. This translates into average yearly increases in attainment of 6.3 percent and 3.25 percent growth in enrollment.

The picture is even more encouraging for Hispanic students who had an increase in credentials of 440 percent compared to enrollment growth of 226 percent. There was a 283 percent increase in earned credentials and a 137 percent increase in enrollment by black students. White student credentials grew by 90 percent, and there was a 17 percent increase in enrollment over the past 20 years.

"Community colleges are performing at a level much greater than generally reported or understood," the report says.

Traditional federal graduation-rate data now report the completion of full-time, degree-seeking students. "It is not an accurate measure of accountability," said Mullin. Only 10 percent of community college students are first-time, full-time students. Many are older workers returning to school for retraining or attending part time. Nearly 60 percent of students work more than 20 hours a week, he said. Others transfer to four-year universities.

"Students really are being successful, and community colleges are providing opportunities," Mullin said. "We care about all students—not just a subset."

There have been calls for new measures for community college completion, such as a report generated in June suggesting graduation rates include part-time students. In that report, the Dept. of Education Committee on Measures of Success included a reference to 37 percent of students at two-year institutions receiving a degree or certificate within four years of beginning their studies. Another recent study by Complete College America estimates about 19 percent of full-time students earn an associate degree within four years.

The new AACC policy brief notes that despite the substantial growth in credentials, more needs to be done at community colleges to foster completion, such as improved guidance and individualized remedial education.

In 2009-10 students attending community colleges earned more than 1 million credentials. Sixty percent were associate or bachelor's degrees, and the other 40 percent were certificates in programs that ranged from short term (less than one year) to long term (2-4 years.)

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