Community Colleges Face Challenges, But Data Analytics Can Help

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Community colleges continue to play an important role in helping both high school graduates and adult learners move up to a four-year institution. Community colleges also provide specialized training and education that would qualify workers for specific types of jobs. However, their true value ultimately depends on whether students complete their programs. Unfortunately, new data shows a high percentage of students who start higher education at a community college are not earning degrees.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Signature Report for 2017, about four in 10 first-time freshmen start higher education at a community college. Just 34 percent of students who entered a community college in 2010 and transferred to four-year institution earned a certificate or associate degree within six years, and only 42 percent earned a bachelor’s degree. For students attending a community college that had a partnership with a four-year institution, the numbers were even worse — 29 percent earned a certificate or associate degree, and only 13 percent earned a bachelor’s degree.

The federal government and several states have introduced legislation to address these problems. At the federal level, the Reverse Transfer Efficiency Act of 2017 states that students who transfer from a community college to four-year institution but fail to earn a bachelor’s degree would be able to apply credits toward an associate’s degree. This would ensure that students who have met course requirements for an associate’s degree have credentials to show for their efforts and investments in higher education.

In Virginia, the focus has been on workforce development and awarding credentials for high-priority jobs. However, a recent report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that only 39 percent of the state’s community college students earn a degree, certificate or other credential. Dual enrollment programs aren’t doing enough to save students time and money, and community colleges don’t have the staff to provide students with the advising they need. The commission has recommended legislative action to, among other things, update how coursework is credited to specific programs and develop standard criteria for identifying at-risk students.

Many community colleges are struggling to use the wealth of data at their disposal to overcome these challenges. The overwhelming amount of undifferentiated data is making it difficult for school officials to identify key metrics and set priorities. As a result, they often try to do everything at once. Initiatives become watered down, have limited effectiveness and are impossible to scale.

Data analytics can help community colleges improve student success rates. With the right tools, you can organize and simplify data in a way that allows you to avoid multiple interpretations of the same data and drill down to the key problems. Data analytics can be used to create a common understanding so school officials can make more-informed decisions about setting priorities and addressing various issues.

With a number of industries facing skills gaps and more students evaluating higher education based on ROI, community colleges have an opportunity to serve recent graduates, adult learners, and the organizations that eventually employ them. The ability to mine data for key insights can help students earn credentials that allow them to advance in their careers, improving outcomes for both students and institutions.