Exploring Conceptualizations and Measures of Community College Student Success

Topper, Amelia Marcetti (2014). 'Exploring Conceptualizations and Measures of Community College Student Success' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Community colleges serve more than half (53%) of all undergraduate students enrolled at public postsecondary institutions in the United States, which translates into approximately 11 million students annually (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). For more than a century, they have served as entry points for millions of minority, low-income, and first-generation college students (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). In this session, I will present findings from a pilot project exploring conceptions of community college student success and initial findings from my dissertation project that examines: 1) To what extent do community colleges enhance and/or constrain the development of students' academic, economic, and civic capabilities? 2) What are the similarities and differences of capabilities valued by students, faculty, and administrators?

Context. Early community college leaders, driven by progressive ideology and scientific rationalism, created an educational space that reflected the idealized promise of a classless, apolitical, rationally engineered society. President Truman's Commission on Higher Education further popularized the idea of the community college as a democratic agent – a site of low-cost higher learning of, and for, the people regardless of gender, race, or income. Nevertheless, the community college has also been a contested site of democratic potential since its inception. Early proponents viewed them as an effective mechanism for filtering out students who were not college ready, freeing universities to remain selective institutions focused primarily on research (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). As students flocked to the community college during the 1960s and 1970s, critics contended that community colleges contributed to social stratification and the reproduction of class and race inequalities by managing student aspirations and sorting students into various academic and vocational tracks.

Outcomes. Prior to the 1990s, much of the limited research on community colleges highlighted their poor educational outcomes compared with four-year institutions. However, many of these commonly-used metrics were originally designed to capture the enrollment behaviors of four-year students at residential institutions and are difficult to adapt to the community college context because of their multiple missions and diverse, non-traditional student population. Furthermore, community college students are less 'predictable' than their four-year counterparts, which makes the U.S. Department of Education's standardized measures of persistence, graduation (within three years of enrollment), and transfer much less relevant. Community college students enroll for many – and multiple – reasons including personal interest, to earn an associate's degree or other undergraduate certificate, to enhance their job skills and prepare for licensing exams, and to complete coursework to transfer to another institution. One can see how limiting these measures might be in capturing the community college's complex contribution to higher education and, more broadly, their commitment to social and civic development.

Conceptualizing student success. An added challenge to measuring community college outcomes is that there are no theories specifically about student success; that is, prevailing theories often make assumptions about what student success means without much interrogation (Evans et al., 2010). Although these theories are popular ways of thinking about student outcomes, several limitations make them ill suited to the community college context. First, their reliance on academic and, to a lesser extent, economic measures of student success mask student achievement behind gross institutional indicators of progress, such as the three-year graduation rate of first-time, full-time community college students (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). This emphasis on these 'process indicators' has contributed to the widespread assumption that these measures are relevant to all student populations and institutional types. The use of these measures to define institutional effectiveness leads higher education practitioners, policymakers, and the general public to value what is being measured instead of finding ways to measure what is valuable.

Second, the outcomes emphasized by these theories fail to capture key components of the community college mission and the diversity of its student population. Many of the seminal college impact theories were initially developed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s by analyzing homogeneous samples of white, middle-class, male students at four-year residential institutions, which severely limits their generalizability. An additional conceptual challenge with applying these theories to the community college context is their inherent linearity, which assumes rationality on the part of the student and/or the institution. As research has shown, community college students often traverse institutions in non-linear ways; they are more likely than students at traditional four-year colleges and universities to enroll at multiple institutions during the same term, 'stop-out' or take breaks from enrollment, or 'swirl' between institutions.

Towards an alternative framework. As a departure from these dominant theories, my dissertation project uses the capability approach to understand student success. First developed by economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (1979, 1989) in the 1980s, the approach has been used to study poverty, social advantage, agency, freedom, and human development in developing countries. Although it has largely been used in university contexts (e.g., Walker, 2006), its focus on opportunity, equity, and social advantage make it a natural fit for exploring community college student success. The approach provides researchers with a way to evaluate how community colleges enhance or constrain individual development and agency (Walker, 2006), which is conducive to the community college mission. Given that community colleges are of, and for, the people and their communities, it seems appropriate to adopt a framework that attempts to privilege their voices.

Using Walker's (2006) 'ideal-theoretical' list of eight interrelated and multidimensional higher education capabilities as a starting point, I am conducting a multiple-site case study of two community colleges, Bay Community College and Cactus Community College, which are both actively engaged in national and homegrown student success initiatives. Data collection consists of: 1) student-level longitudinal cohort data tracking student academic progression merged with the state's employment data; 2) a survey of all currently-enrolled community college students; 3) in-depth, semi-structured interviews with students and faculty/administrators; 4) a visual exercise that will supplement and enhance the interviews; and 5) a document review of publicly-available materials that speak to the institutions' mission and culture.

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