Institutional Effects on Community College Completion Rates: An Analysis of Washington State’s Community and Technical College System
Mast, Gabriel W.
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Today nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates at public institutions are community college students. Despite being the fastest growing sector of American higher education, the success rates of these colleges are extraordinarily low. Only one-third of community college students earn a certificate/award within six years of starting higher education, and less than 20% earn a Bachelor’s degree in that period – despite the fact that nearly 80% of new community college students aspire to obtain at least a four-year degree or higher. Although prior research has investigated how individual characteristics play a part in community college students’ success rates, there is less known about how institutional characteristics link with student outcomes. The present study helps fill this gap by 1) quantitatively investigating how, after accounting for individual-level effects, institutional variables contribute to community college students’ likelihood of completing a college certificate or degree, or transferring to a baccalaureate institution, and 2) qualitatively investigating the practices and cultures of highly effective institutions relative to “typical” institutions. Multilevel modeling results for two cohorts of first time, degree-seeking students (N = 58,492 combined) enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges (N = 33) showed that college location (urban, rural, or suburban) and focal orientation of the college (workforce vs. transfer) were the only consistent predictors of student outcomes, once student characteristics were accounted for. In other words, students were more likely to complete their degree/certificate or transfer to a 4-year college when attending an institution with a focus that matched their own. Transfer students were more likely to complete at urban institutions whereas workforce students were more likely to complete in colleges situated in non-urban locations. Case study results of highly effective institutions – those with higher than predicted completion rates – revealed wide variation in leadership, culture, reform initiatives, and use of data. Nevertheless, highly effective institutions appeared to be utilizing wrap-around, mentor-style student advising, and have cultures built around a strong “sub-mission” such as an institution-wide focus on equity or workforce education, unique to each institution that potentially helps to focus the broad community college mission. Finally, findings also show that highly effective institutions perceive participation in the national “Achieving the Dream” completion initiative as transformational for institutional practices, especially in terms of aiding them in focusing on their institutional data, student completion, and intermediate measures of completion. Potential implications for policy and future research are discussed.
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