Increased Accountability, by the Numbers

Data can help provide the big picture — or an incomplete one.

As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), one common theme is that the increased funding for federal financial aid has resulted in Congress pushing colleges to do better for students and increase degree completion.  The demise of some large proprietary colleges has also led to increased discussions about creating mechanisms to ascertain the performance of colleges and hold institutions more accountable, for example by imposing financial risk-sharing penalties on student loans and possible changes in accreditation. 

Policymakers largely believe that the sole mission of a community college is to graduate students.  The measurement used to assess the performance of higher education is the first-time/full-time graduation rate at 150 percent of time, which is three years for community colleges.  Unfortunately, this metric fails to understand the demographics and enrollment behaviors of community college students.

The current federal graduation rate fails to measure part-time students, who represent the clear majority of community college students.  Importantly, graduation rates also fail to measure the key role of community colleges in in transferring students to other institutions.  Every student that takes longer to graduate, stops out, or transfers is therefore considered to be a failure by the current federal metrics.  Earlier this year, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that of the students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2015-16, 49 percent had attended a community college.  This data point shows the power and importance of community colleges, yet the federal graduation metrics fail to acknowledge this crucial role. 

The Department of Education’s College Scorecard perfectly illustrates policymakers’ lack of understanding of the role of community college students and the institutions themselves.  The Scorecard contains wage information, but it only includes students who receive federal aid. In some instances, it only contains data for Pell Grant recipients, which skews the picture of community college student earnings.    

In the last reauthorization of HEA, Congress included an amendment to ban a federal student unit record system.  The ban has resulted in an inaccurate picture of the role and success of community colleges.  For community colleges as public entities, data at the institutional and individual levels are routinely provided to their states.  However, due to the federal unit record ban, colleges provide data to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data system (IPEDS) only at the aggregate institutional level and only for students receiving federal aid.  The lack of individual student data beyond for those receiving federal Title IV aid makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of how community college students are persisting, completing, and transferring.  Research shows that students who do not receive financial aid complete at higher levels, but their data, including wage data, are not being captured by the federal government except at the aggregate level. 

A major priority for community colleges in this coming HEA reauthorization will be to overturn the federal student unit record ban.  The traditional student of old represents a minority of students today.  A federal student unit record data system would allow for metrics on actual student behavior, transfers between institutions, and stop outs.  A federal unit record data system would also allow for actual wage information on students when they leave college.  Furthermore, overturning the federal student record ban would reduce the data burden on institutions, as the data would only need to be provided once, as opposed to today’s piecemeal approach and multiple formats. 

Another element that needs to change is the three-year graduation metric for community college students, which should be adjusted to reflect more accurate enrollment behaviors.  A recent Clearinghouse report noted that Department of Education data on first-time/full-time students entering in 2010 showed that the graduation rate was 29.4 percent, but when those full-time students were measured on a six-year timeframe and included transfers who completed at another institution, the graduation rate nearly doubled — to 54.7 percent. Students are taking more time to finish, and Congress should acknowledge changing enrollment trends and the full contribution of community colleges to postsecondary success in our nation. 

Jee Hang Lee is the ACCT Vice President for Public Policy and External Relations. He be reached by email at or by phone at 202-775-4667.

The next several Advocacy articles in upcoming issues of Trustee Quarterly will be aimed at key ACCT policy priorities that will be part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  Please follow along with latest developmentsand encourage other advocates at your college to use ACCT’s new online policy website,  To receive legislative updates via e-mail, please sign up at

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