CUNY Fails with its measure for success

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Published in CLARION, October, 2009, p.11.

The most popular measure for public accountability of colleges and universities is the federal graduation rate. But more and more often, higher education leaders are criticizing both the accuracy of the federal rate and way it is used as a single measure of success. In the words of a report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), this approach produces “a factually incorrect and misleading picture of what is going on.”

            The common federal measure of the graduation rate, from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data, reports on graduation “within 150% of normal time.” That means six years for baccalaureate degrees, and three years for associate degrees. Moreover, this statistic includes only first-time full-time freshmen who finish at the same college.

            “How ridiculous it is that a student who completes a year of community college and then earns a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution counts as a failure against the community college, because the student did not complete an associate degree – and as a nonentity at the four-year college, because transfer students are not included in the federal data set,” wrote Diane Auer Jones, former assistant secretary for postsecondary education, in Chronicle of Higher Education last March.

            Student Persistence in College: More than Counting Caps and Gowns, an AFT report released in 2003, notes the following about data provided under the federal Student Right to Know Act (SRK): “The SRK graduation snapshot ...fails to account for part-time students, who represent more than 40% of the student population. It fails to account for the fact that a large number of students transfer between four-year institutions, or between community colleges, during their academic careers. It also fails to account for the fact that many students get what they want from college in terms of job skills or personal enrichment without graduating. The SRK snapshot labels such students as failures when they are really successes.” (The report is online at

            Using only such federal data, graduation rates appear so deplorably low that some have labeled public colleges and universities as “failure factories”. But is this so? Are our students failing more than succeeding? Are our efforts so insufficient that we are to be exhorted to enter into “Campaigns for Success,” in which the heart of the problem is defined as “changing the culture” of our colleges? A more careful examination and more diligent gathering of data reveals quite a different story.

            Overreliance on this flawed federal data suppresses a more accurate narrative in which students and faculty, facing major challenges of underfunding and under-preparedness, persist and produce a remarkable level of academic accomplishment over time intervals longer than the years used in popular reports.

            A woman perseveres and overcomes one obstacle after another and graduates at a CUNY community college after 18 years. For her family, she is a success story! Another with special needs takes 10 years to obtain her baccalaureate. No faculty member seeing them receive their degrees on graduation day would think of these students, or what they did for them, as anything less than a success. They cheer for them as do their families, for whom they become powerful models for all those in their life circumstances.

Such achievers who persevere through hardship and constant challenges demonstrate the high value that they place on education. The benefits for themselves, their families and society from their hard-won victories may be far greater than those that result from degrees granted to well-prepared students who attend full-time for four straight years.

Yes, these students’ difficult journey to success should be shorter – and might have been, if they had been given better academic preparation; if CUNY had the resources to expand student support services (e.g., child care); if tuition assistance had been designed to fit the realities of their lives (e.g., per-credit TAP); if they did not bear the accumulated weight of a generation of underfunding of public higher education.

            Students should complete their degree programs as soon as they can, and institutions must do all that they can to support such outcomes. But a persistent and pernicious underfunding of public higher education has made it difficult and in some cases impossible to remediate the underpreparedness of many students for college work, and a wide range of outside factors can slow or prevent students from progressing towards completion.

            What is striking, given the challenges our students face, is just how many do graduate. The greater the effort to gather complete data, the higher the graduation rate goes. In Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?,

CUNY’s Paul Attewell and David Lavin looked at women of color at CUNY and their persistence rates and compared it to national data. Extending their time frame out to 20 years, they found that these women did graduate at a 70% rate, comparable to national trends.

            This and other studies also reveal substantial benefits – for families and for society – of attending college even without attaining a degree. Students benefit in terms of their knowledge and cultural awareness, and their children benefit from expanded cultural and academic horizons, becoming more likely to enter into higher education themselves.

            Those who enter college with great economic challenges and with less support or family history of experience with higher education will take longer to graduate. Overreliance on the six-year graduation rate obscures the academic achievements of CUNY students, and fails to provide a useful picture of the obstacles they face. The CUNY Campaign for Success and other initiatives that focus on this popular graduation measure, and CUNY’s Performance Management Program (PMP), which also uses that standard, can be construed as an insult to the efforts of students and faculty alike.

Special programs at CUNY, such as ASAP or the proposed new community college, now aim to provide enhanced support for select groups of students who are expected to obtain an associate degree in two or three years. While there are positive elements to such programs, their “success” may be neither scalable nor sustainable.

The first problem is CUNY’s scarce resources. To replicate ASAP or the New Community College plan for all community college students at CUNY would require that the University’s budget be increased by a presently impossible order of magnitude.    CUNY’s  leaders should be honest about this – and in the meantime, faculty must think about how we can best serve all community college students, not just a small minority in a few select programs.

Second,  using federal graduation rates as the key measure of success may tempt colleges and universities to raise their “success” rates with academic programs that exclude students whose circumstances indicate a real possibility for graduation, but over a longer period of time. Programs like ASAP  (only full time and nearly remediation exempt) and the New Community College Plan (no transfers, only full time, not needing to work full time, vocationally directed) select and support students in a manner that can not scale to include all at our community colleges.    Yet the CUNY mission and Open Admissions aim to include the full diversity of students who enter community colleges, with life situations that include poor academic preparation, economic hardships, and family responsibilities that will delay graduation well beyond the nominal time.

            Programs at CUNY and elsewhere that offer significantly increased academic and financial support will produce positive changes in graduation rates. Dedicating more resources to public colleges and their students is a positive step, and in fact long overdue. But as we consider the best use of our scarce resources, we need to think carefully about how to accurately define student success.

Beyond a change in the time interval, we need to change what is measured altogether. Some who care about community colleges have begun pushing back against the insistence upon a singular measure of “success,” discussing what other measures would be more accurate, realistic and truthful.

In 2006, colleges in Connecticut, Florida , North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia began efforts to report a more complete evaluation of community college student success, starting with the academic goals students set for themselves:  transfer as soon as possible, part-time and persevere to graduation, career advancement and personal growth.   Sooner rather than later, New York and CUNY should engage in a similar open evaluation of what we should measure. It may be easier and politically expedient to use the current measure but an honest effort to capture the full data gets us all closer to the true story.

            For those of us in CUNY who look at the human beings we serve, we realize that in time most students do achieve and do succeed, and that we work very hard to support their efforts to do so. In fact, most of us have dedicated our lives to that end. CUNY should work equally hard to tell these students’ stories. “Success” is written all over those tales, too often left untold and uncounted.



Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at