President’s Message: ACC Students Count

The following message is from ACC President/CEO Dr. Richard Rhodes, who also shares his thoughts about success measurements in the current President’s Podcast. For more on this topic, view the ACC Students Count handout.

ACC Students Count

by Dr. Richard Rhodes

Community colleges are under scrutiny for graduation rates, and it’s definitely a focal point for us as well. However, the story is much bigger than one statistic. Let me explain.

Dr. Richard Rhodes - President/CEO Austin Community College

Dr. Richard Rhodes

At ACC, nothing is more important than student success. Students come to us for a variety of reasons – to earn transferable college credit, train for a high-demand career, get college-ready, or take classes for personal or professional enrichment. Whatever students’ goals, we want to help them get there. We’re doing an outstanding job across the college, but there are certainly areas where we need to do better. And we’re actively working on that through our Student Success Initiative (SSI).

It is worth noting that the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) bases graduation rates on first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students – and that represents just a fraction of our student body. The 2006 cohort examined to determine the graduation rate was 1,836 out of 33,039 credit students: 5.5 percent of our student body.

Among that group, ACC’s graduation rate over three years is about 4 percent. What that figure doesn’t tell you is that 726 students of the 2006 cohort transferred in that three-year period. That is nearly 40 percent who count against the college as “non-completers.” ACC is surrounded by a number of wonderful universities, and close to half of our credit-student population comes to us intending to transfer. Our three-year graduation plus transfer rate, according to IPEDS, is 43 percent (compared to a 34 percent average for other Texas metropolitan community colleges).

But even when you factor in our successful transfer students, there’s a major concern. Under the IPEDS methodology, 94.5 percent of our credit students weren’t even eligible to be part of the calculation. They didn’t “count,” so to speak – because they weren’t first-time, full-time, and degree-seeking.

That model of measurement is outdated and particularly ill-suited for a community college like ACC. There are fewer and fewer first-time, full-time students; that’s simply no longer the traditional pathway. Consider the stories of these students, whose success will not be reflected in first-time, full-time calculations:

  • Ryan Galloway is a veteran who suffered injuries while serving in Iraq. He enrolled at ACC to gain a foundation to become a middle school math teacher. Ryan doesn’t count, because he attended college prior to joining the Army – that is, he is not a first-time student.
  • Paul Samilpa began his college career while still in high school, thanks to ACC’s Early College Start program. He earned a year’s worth of college credit through ACC, enabling him to graduate from a university in three years. However, while the university gets graduation rate credit for Paul, ACC cannot claim him as a success.
  • LaSonya Matts dropped out of school in the sixth grade and earned her GED at 25. She was determined to earn a college degree and enrolled at ACC. Through one of our SSI programs, LaSonya made it through her developmental math requirements and is now an Associate Degree Nursing (RN) student. She’s taking classes while raising her children and plans to graduate in 2013. A success? Absolutely. But because she is a part-time student, she isn’t part of the group being measured.

And LaSonya isn’t alone. The Associate Degree Nursing program is one of the best examples of why the traditional model of measurement doesn’t work. ACC is ranked by Community College Week among the top ten producers of nursing associate degrees in the country. Each year, we graduate some 260 registered nurses, with a licensure pass rate of 98 percent or higher. Yet the vast majority is not first-time, full-time, and able to graduate in three years. In 2009-10, only three of 268 Associate Degree Nursing graduates counted. That’s a little more than 1 percent. We also see that trend college-wide. Among 2,013 ACC graduates in 2009-10, just 34 met the first-time, full-time, three-year standard.

One of the hallmarks of community colleges is our diverse mission. We offer multiple pathways for students like Ryan, Paul, and LaSonya to be successful and achieve their dreams. Success rate measurements should embrace our diversity rather than exclude most students. We therefore must explore better ways to assess an institution’s success. One possibility is a momentum points system similar to that in the state of Washington. Performance is gauged by student progression through key benchmarks, not just graduation. (For example, colleges could be recognized for the number of students who complete gateway courses.) Such a system would better reflect whether we’re helping students accomplish their individual goals.

If this were just about raising a statistic, we could develop more stringent requirements for first-time, full-time students. But would that be in the best interest of our students and community? On the contrary – that would go against our commitment to broad access to higher education. We want to simultaneously maintain our mission of access and extremely high standards. In order to raise the graduation rate for the students who are included in first-time, full-time counts, we are enacting a number of interventions, such as mandatory orientation and faculty coaching, and encouraging students to earn an associate degree before transferring. I won’t be satisfied until our graduation rate is exceptional.

But we want the entire picture in focus – and that means looking at the performance of our entire student body. Students such as Ryan, Paul, and LaSonya most certainly do count to their families, communities, and ACC. To exclude them from success rates does a disservice to them and a disservice to us. Success matters – and all our students count.

Dr. Rhodes became ACC president/CEO in September 2011.

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