Institutional Variation in Credential Completion: Evidence from Washington State Community and Technical Colleges
As community colleges search for models of organizational success, new attention is being paid to technical colleges—institutions that primarily offer terminal programs in specific career-related fields rather than focusing on more general academic credentials and transfer programs as many comprehensive institutions do. Recent research observes that in some states, technical colleges have substantially higher completion rates than do comprehensive community colleges. Yet there is scant research available that systematically compares similar students in similar programs at technical and comprehensive colleges. This study uses administrative data from Washington State to compare the outcomes of young, career-technical students across institutions, with and without extensive controls for student characteristics, educational intent, and area of study. This generates three key findings: first, technical and comprehensive colleges tend to serve quite different populations, so a true apples-to-apples comparison requires limiting the analysis to a relatively small fraction (less than 10%) of students enrolled at either institution. Second, at least for this limited subset of career-technical students, technical schools have significantly higher certificate completion rates after three years, with no apparent deficit in associate degree completion. Our third main finding is that the differences in student outcomes within the two types of schools are much larger than differences between them. Even within this limited group, institution type alone explains a relatively small fraction of the overall variation in student outcomes across institutions. It would thus be unwise for research and policymakers to fixate on this one dimension of difference.
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