Is Student Success Labeled Institutional Failure? Student Goals and Graduation Rates in the Accountability Debate at Community Colleges
Community colleges are open-door institutions serving many students with characteristics that can make college completion a challenge. Their graduation rates are often considered low, but their students do not always have earning a degree as a goal. While individuals may feel that their college experience was a success, standard graduation rate measures of performance count a student's enrollment as a failure unless it culminates in a credential or transfer to a four-year institution. This paper explores the impact of students' reasons for enrollment and educational expectations on their outcomes and, thus, on the performance of their college, showing that community college students with degree and transfer goals are more likely to graduate or transfer. Still, an analysis suggests that even among only students who state that their goal is a degree, certificate, or transfer, fewer than 50 percent achieve that goal within six years. Moreover, large gaps in success rates for Black and Hispanic students cannot be explained by differences in either their reason for enrolling or their educational expectations. We also show that students' educational expectations should not be treated as fixed, and that, not surprisingly, the experience of college has a role in shaping their expectations. We conclude that educators and policy makers should be cautious in using student goals as benchmarks for success, and that assumptions about student goals should not be used to discourage efforts to improve overall performance and reduce disparities between groups. Colleges need to recognize the dynamic nature of student intentions and expectations, the factors that shape these goals before entering college, and the institutional role in shaping them while at college.
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