Community Colleges: No Single Measure for Success


Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Nassau and Suffolk Community Colleges, SUNY

Published in Community College Humanist, Fall 2008,  Vol. 29, N0.4 .

At last there are signs that some folks who care about Community Colleges are pushing back against the insistence upon singular measures of "success" for students.  For years I have spoken and written about the need to be more truthful and accurate and realistic in reporting on community college students and their genuine success stories.  Now some states are doing just that (see INSIDE HIGHER ED “Different Measures of Community College Outcomes”, September 11, 2008 ). 

Despite the apparent fixation with single quantitative measures for assessing the value of public institutions we who teach in the public community colleges of this nation know that there is more to determining the “success” rate of our efforts than the 4 or 6 year graduation rates.   Whenever a student fulfills the academic objectives with which they enter the college or formulate while with us that would be a “success” for us.  Whether it is transfer, a few classes for career advancement, a few classes to determine what their abilities and preferences are or completion of a certificate or degree, their accomplishing their own goals are instances of "success".  While many who are responsible for our public funding are still keyed in to graduation rates that does not necessitate that we ourselves truncate our own reporting of what is actually going on and the genuine success of many community colleges in providing assistance to human beings in their efforts to improve on their lot in life, be it financial or intellectual.   Perhaps sustained efforts to tell our story which is telling the stories of our students will bring about yet another change in the public measure; after all, the current index has been changed from a two year graduation rate to substantially greater periods of time.  This acknowledgement of the changes in socio-economic circumstances needs to be made once again.  The current imposition of the graduation rate as sole or main indicator is cruel and misleading and insulting to students whose real lives can not conform to the model that served as the basis for the two year curriculum design and insulting to ourselves as professional educators who teach human beings and courses and do not dedicate our lives to boosting the single measure.

 Innumerable anecdotes indicate that a degree from my university, the City University of New York (CUNY), changes the lives of many people who attend classes and even for the next generation of their families. There are many who value CUNY for this.  For those wishing to appraise the effectiveness of Open Admissions in CUNY that each year sends tens of thousands of students to the community colleges in CUNY and the import of such a policy  on the lives of individuals and their families the recent research of  Professors Paul Attewell and David E. Lavin of the CUNY Graduate Center provides data in support of those impressions and beliefs as it presents data that challenges some of the assumptions underlying recent conversations concerning the need to improve upon graduation rates.  The most recent work of Attewell and Lavin presents some of the most basic and dramatic findings of their research in their new book, Passing the Torch:  Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007) 

It is possible that recent data concerning the persistence of open admissions students in CUNY cast doubts on the need for a campaign for improving graduation rates predicated on the acceptance of a national norm of 4 or 6 years.  Problems related to graduation rates may have more to do with conceptual blinders than with what is actually going on.  Students entering college immediately after high school and graduating in 4 years constitute less than 25% of those attending college.  Delayed graduation has become the national norm.   

The authors think the data, if examined, can dispel three key misconceptions or myths about open admissions and increasing access to higher education:  3 myths:   

1. Weaker students are not good students and they will not graduate; i.e., the Open Admissions Policy was not a good idea because students are poorly prepared and not fit for college.

2. If students do not graduate in 6 years they seldom ever do.

3. Weaker students are not good students and they will devalue college degrees and the institutions that grant them, i.e., in New York the value of a CUNY degree has been devalued by the Open Admissions Policy. 

The basic idea was that weaker students can not do college work . 


More Open Admissions students graduated than what was commonly believed.  If one examined the rate of graduation out beyond six years the data indicated that 70% of CUNY students graduated with a degree and three fourths of them with a four year degree.  The national average is 60%.   Even the weaker CUNY students do graduate (more than 50%) over time. 

The current low rate of graduation after 6 years includes those who are weak in preparation and many poor and minority students.   

It is the case that the economic value of a baccalaureate degree has grown in time. Minority students will earn more than those without a degree.  Minority students who enter with weak academic preparation will also earn more than those without a degree.  Minority students who enter with weak academic preparation who have some college credits will also earn more than those without a degree. 

According to the previously mentioned story in INSIDE HIGHER ED there are now people in Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia who are attempting to record and report the more complete story of the success of community college students.  One can hope that in New York and in CUNY what constitutes "success" for students at our community colleges will be brought closer to the real story. 

There are special programs at community colleges that provide support for select groups of students who are expected to obtain an associate degree in two years. Such outcomes are not the typical outcomes for community colleges nor could they be given the diversity of students who enter community colleges, their own goals and the real life situations that include poor academic preparation, economic hardships, family responsibilities and a myriad of other factors that preclude completing 15 credits per semester.  Yet for those of us who look at the human beings we serve we realize that in time most students do achieve and do succeed and we work very hard to support their efforts to do so. In fact most of us have dedicated our lives to that end.   We should work equally hard to tell their stories. “Success” is written all over those tales 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