Student Progress Toward Degree Completion: Lessons from the Research Literature

September 2009

Efforts Growing to Monitor Student Success 

There is a growing recognition of the need to increase the number of Americans earning college degrees as evidence mounts that the country’s economic competitiveness is declining. A telling indicator of declining fortunes is that the country is doing less well in educating new generations than are many other nations. While the U.S. is first among the 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in the percent of its population ages 55 to 64 with an associate’s degree or higher, its ranking falls to 10th for the younger population ages 25 to 34. Recently, President Obama raised awareness of the serious deficiency in education levels and called for the nation to once again lead the world, by 2020, in the share of the population with college degrees. But without intervention, the trend of declining educational attainment will continue as better-educated older workers retire and are replaced by individuals with lower levels of education and skills, placing the economic health and social fabric of the nation at risk (Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto, & Sum, 2007).

The OECD data show that the U.S. is still near the top in college participation rates but ranks near the bottom among OECD nations in college completion rates. Low rates of completion have increased interest in monitoring student progress and success with a goal of improving outcomes. The former U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (2006) recommended formation of a national database to track student success. While concerns over privacy and other issues have made development of such a student-level data base unlikely at the national level, many state governments are developing student unit record systems and accountability programs to monitor student outcomes in their public colleges and universities.

Foundations are also sponsoring a number of efforts aimed at developing better ways of measuring and monitoring student success. The Cross-State Data Work Group, a collaboration of seven states participating in the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream initiative, recently developed some measures of student outcomes in community colleges and tested them with data from several states (Jobs for the Future, 2008). Funding through both the Achieving the Dream initiative and the Ford Foundation’s Bridges to Opportunity project was used by the Community College Research Center to develop a set of student success measures for community colleges (Leinbach & Jenkins, 2008).

Challenges of Measuring Student Progress and Success 

Efforts to measure student success have generally been limited to retention, graduation, and transfer rates (see Table 1), but these measures are inadequate to fully understand student progress and degree completion. They are especially inadequate in providing guidance as to how to improve student progress and degree completion. These measures have traditionally examined only full-time students beginning in a fall term, and have only tracked retention and graduation within the institution where a student first enrolled. But attendance patterns have changed. More students are attending college part time, and are enrolling in multiple institutions along the path to a degree (Adelman, 2006).

Traditional measures are particularly difficult to apply to community college students, given both the greater likelihood of non-traditional attendance patterns (Adelman, 2005) and the multiple missions of community colleges that make it a challenge to identify students who are enrolling for the purpose of completing a college credential. There is a special challenge in measuring the success represented by transferring from a community college to a university. Some students complete all lower-division requirements before transferring. Other students may complete only a few courses at a community college before moving on to a four-year institution. While both of these circumstances represent a “transfer,” they are not equivalent in terms of the degree of progress they represent toward completion of the baccalaureate.

Finally, traditional measures of success ignore the intermediate outcomes that students must achieve on the path to degree completion, including finishing any needed remediation and completing particular courses or sets of courses (i.e., general education requirements or coursework needed for transfer from a community college to a university). By ignoring these intermediate outcomes, traditional measures fail to provide any guidance for interventions to increase degree completion.

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