Steps to Success: Analyzing Milestone Achievement to Improve Community College Student Outcomes

October 2009

The Obama Administration has brought increased attention to community colleges as institutions that will help the nation once again become a world leader in postsecondary degree attainment. Billions of dollars in new funding are being proposed as a means to improve graduation rates and other student outcomes across the nation’s community colleges.

But there is widespread recognition that the current means of measuring and accounting for outcomes in community colleges is deficient. Among the weaknesses of current systems is an under-emphasis on the reporting of intermediate outcomes that students achieve along the way to completion. Understanding the patterns by which students make, or fail to make, progress toward completion is vital to the national mobilization to improve student outcomes. The more that is understood about what helps students make forward progress and where that progress typically stalls, the greater the chances of reaching these lofty but essential national goals.

This report offers a framework for guiding educators in using available knowledge and tools to improve student outcomes. It shows how better use of available data can help diagnose why students fail to make progress toward a degree and can better demonstrate the progress students make along the pathway to a degree. The framework consists of two factors: milestones, or intermediate educational achievements that students reach along the path to degree completion, and indicators of success, or academic patterns students follow including remediation, gateway courses, and credit accumulation, that have been demonstrated in research studies to correlate with forward progress and completion.

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