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Set the record straight on community college

A group of students walks across the campus

A group of students walks across the campus of Suffolk County Community College in Selden on Apr. 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Recent criticism of community colleges has prompted some New York policymakers to push for a change in how the state aids community colleges. Critics concerned about graduation rates, for instance, want a portion of state financial assistance to be based on things like degree completion.

But the measurements used by critics are flawed.

Let us set the record straight.

Colleges and universities must report annually a variety of statistics to the federal government through a database, the information source used by the Department of Education. Unfortunately, using the data to make policy decisions is shortsighted. The database asks colleges and universities to report on retention, graduation rates, and time to completion. It uses a time period of 150 percent of expected graduation time, or six years after entrance for four-year schools, and three years for two-year schools. In effect, community colleges are held to the same standard as four-year schools and research universities.

The problem is that the institutions are strikingly different. Nationally, 62 percent of students attending community colleges take at least one remedial course before credit-bearing college study — 52 percent in math. Four-year schools, by contrast, seldom offer remedial courses. They can be selective in admitting graduating high school seniors. So,if a graduating senior’s test scores indicate that he or she is not prepared for college-level work, he or she is denied admission.

Community colleges, like Suffolk County Community College, are open-access schools, admitting 99 percent of applicants. Stony Brook University, a four-year school that offers some catch-up help to its students, accepts fewer than 41 percent of its freshman applicants, eventually enrolling 8 percent. About 50 percent of Suffolk’s students attend part time. Only 7 percent of Stony Brook’s undergraduate students attend part-time.

Most community college students work — at Suffolk many work more than 30 hours a week. Not so in four-year schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer than 40 percent of their students have jobs, and many of these students work fewer than 15 hours a week at work-study jobs on campus. At Suffolk, 90 percent of students have jobs with more than 36 percent working more than 35 hours a week. It’s no wonder it has so many part-time students.

Students attending part time and/or who need remedial studies before earning credit, have little hope of finishing studies in three years.

Additionally, the statistics most quoted are graduation rates, but looking solely at graduation rates for community colleges belies an understanding of their mission. For many students, community college is a bridge to four-year schools — sometimes to enhance qualifications for admission, and sometimes to save money on two years before moving to a four-year school. And yet, the percentage of students transferring to four-year schools — a success for a community college — is overlooked. In fact, if, after studying at Suffolk, a student were to transfer to Harvard University, she or he would be counted negatively in our graduation rate.

At Suffolk, by extending the period to evaluate effectiveness to six or even eight years, the number of students either graduating and/or transferring successfully to four-year schools is about 50 percent — despite the many students starting in remedial coursework or going part time. Without these challenges, Stony Brook’s graduation rate, using that same set of criteria, is 89 percent. And measurements do not account for the many students going to community college not expecting a degree, but taking courses to advance at work, or to improve a skill.

Community colleges do amazing work. While the push to use performance measures to determine funding may be understandable, we must make sure those measures make sense, or we could do more harm than good to this vital national resource — the community college.

Theresa Sanders and Jim Morgo are, respectively, chairwoman and vice chairman of the Suffolk Community College Board of Trustees.