We are at a moment when the story we tell ourselves around college and its connection to economic opportunity and mobility is unraveling. A high school diploma is no longer a guarantee of employment and entry into the middle class. And increasingly, neither is a college degree. It is true that college graduates fare better in our economy than people without degrees, but in today’s economy even college graduates can be unemployed, underemployed, and saddled with suffocating debt. Now more than ever, students need to make smart decisions about where they go to college and what they study if they want to maximize their chances of employment and make the most of potential labor market returns.
For economically disadvantaged college students attending our nation’s community colleges, the stakes for completing college, securing employment, and advancing in today’s economy are high. Unlike their upper-income peers who can rely on support from their families as they transition from college to work, these students do not have financial safety nets. They often need degrees that they can use immediately after they graduate to get jobs where they live. Our current higher education system does not work especially well for these students. But before we can design a higher education system that is responsive to economic realities for low-income students, we have to change the story we tell ourselves about the relationship between college completion and upward economic mobility.
Much like the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger stories of the 19thth century, where honesty, industriousness, and determination result in upward social and economic mobility, there is a general presumption in American culture that going to college automatically allows low income people to climb up the rungs of the income ladder. In reality, there are many factors that contribute to economic success. Honesty, industriousness, and determination do not guarantee upward economic mobility, nor does earning a college degree.
On average, college degrees pay off. But the relationship between degree completion and upward economic mobility is not causal or linear. All degrees are not created equal. In general, more education is better. But not always. Some associate’s degrees have a greater payoff than bachelor’s degrees. And some bachelor’s degrees pay more than graduate degrees. The relationship between earning a degree and upward economic mobility is like a puzzle. There are many pieces that must be put together for a college degree to pay off.
Initiatives like Completion by Design have begun to re-write the narrative that going to college and completing a degree automatically produces economic success. Instead, as the namesake of the initiative suggests, if we want students to go to college, graduate, and successfully transition to work, we have to design for it. Completion by Design, a precursor to Guided Pathways reform, carefully considers students’ education and career goals and deliberately structures students’ programs of study to align with those goals, be it entering the workforce directly after college or successfully transferring to a four-year institution. Together, these two reform initiatives go a long way to disrupt the false presumption that simply going to college automatically results in degree completion and upward economic mobility.
An instructional program for adults that includes courses designed to improve basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
An award earned for satisfactory completion of at least 2, but usually less than 4 years of full-time equivalent college work. CBD colleges report completions of Associate in Arts (A.A.), Associate in Science (A.S.), and Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degrees, and analysis can be conducted separately.
Students who attempt at least 9 college-level semester credits (usually equivalent to 3 courses) in a given program area in a given time period, whether or not they successfully complete them.
An award earned for satisfactory completion of 4 years of full-time equivalent college-level work. In some cases, students may complete their 4 years of college-level work in 3 years.
A formal award certifying the satisfactory completion of a postsecondary education program. CBD collects completions of less-than-1-year, and 1- to 2-year certificates, and analysis can be conducted separately.
A cohort is a group of people studied during a period of time. The individuals in the group have at least one statistical factor—such as when they started college—in common. Tracking a cohort makes it possible to compare progress and outcomes of different groups of students (i.e., groups defined by race, age or other demographic characteristics) and to determine if there are gaps in achievement among groups of interest. CBD cohorts include students who attempted at least one course during their first term in the following areas:
- College (certificate or degree) credit
- College remedial or developmental
- Adult basic skills (ESL, ABE, or ASE/GED)
- Non-credit vocational (includes courses that could potentially lead to an occupational certificate or certification, but does not include personal interest courses)
A five year initiative designed to help low-income young adults progress through community college more quickly and with a greater chance of success. The initiative’s goal is to substantially increase the completion and graduation rates for large number of students while holding down college costs and maintaining the quality of programs and services.
The integrated set of policies, practices, programs, and processes intentionally designed to maximize student completion across the loss-momentum framework.
Students who successfully complete (with a grade of C or better) at least 9 college-level semester credits (usually equivalent to 3 courses) in a program area, in a given time period.
A program that allows students to enroll in college courses while still enrolled in high school.
The first or lowest-level college-level course students take in a subject such as mathematics, reading, or writing. (See Gateway courses.)
A student who enrolls for the first time in college during the academic year with no previous college level experience or credential.
CBD considers a student enrolled full-time if he or she attempts 12 or more semester or quarter credits in a given term.
The first or lowest-level college-level course students take in a subject such as mathematics, reading, or writing. (See Entry-level courses.)
A set of metrics designed to measure students’ progress at each point of the institutions’ connection with the student—connection, entry, progress, and completion. KPIs are used to monitor institutional performance and the effects of improvement strategies to track student progression through academic milestones.
Points in a student’s academics where he/she losses academic momentum, or falls off his/her educational pathway.
The guiding framework for Completion by Design, which is comprised of four stages that capture the student experience: 1) Connection (interest to application), 2) Entry (enrollment to completion of gateway courses), 3) Progress (steady progress toward completing program requirements), and 4) Completion (completion of program of value for further education and employment).
Measurable educational achievements that include both conventional terminal completions, such as earning a credential or transferring to a baccalaureate program, and intermediate outcomes, such as completing developmental education or adult basic skills requirements.
Measurable educational attainments, such as completing a college-level math course, that are empirically correlated with the completion of a milestone.
Students who did not attempt at least 9 college-level credits (usually the equivalent of three courses) in any program area in a given period of time.
Students who attempt to enter a concentration but do not successfully pass at least 9 semester credits (usually the equivalent of three courses) in a given time period.
A program of study consisting of one or more courses, designed to prepare students for employment in a specific field.
CBD considers a student enrolled part-time if he or she attempts less than 12 semester or quarter credits in a given term.
A tool that uses college data to pinpoint the dynamics of student loss and momentum from connection through completion.
A set of courses and related activities that lead to an attainment of educational objectives such as a certificate or an associate’s degree, sometimes referred to as “major” or “program code”.
A set of metrics designed to measure highest educational outcomes achieved over a specific period of time. Usually computed for cohorts of students, especially those with no prior college experience for comparative purposes.
The route a student takes to connect with, enter, progress through, and complete his/her program of study.
A student who stops studying at the home institution and enrolls at another institution.