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Is a Better Definition of Outcomes Needed at Community Colleges?

Is a Better Definition of Outcomes Needed at Community Colleges?


For the better part of the last decade, there have been various proposals for free education at community colleges. As recently as December 23, President Biden pledged to provide tuition-free community college for all.

States that currently offer free community college are:

The details of these state programs vary, but many of them are last-dollar programs, meaning that students must apply for financial aid and exhaust those grants before state aid is provided. There are also grade point average (GPA), residency, and full-time enrollment requirements for some students as well.

In an article published in Forbes, Dr. Michael Horn writes that community colleges don’t get great outcomes and provides three steps that they can take to make changes. According to Dr. Horn, community colleges are tasked with three missions – academic transfer, career preparedness and training, and community enrichment – and the conflicts between the three contribute to poor outcomes.

Due to the conflicts between the three missions, Dr. Horn recommends that community colleges separate and silo different programs by mission, so that any one program is “laser focused on serving students on only one of these missions.” For example, serving adult learners and providing upskilling is vastly different than serving students right out of high school who are seeking traditional certificate or degree programs.

The second step recommended by Dr. Horn is for community colleges to focus on serving students that have a common set of circumstances and a similar set of motivations. He calls this strategy serving students that have a common “Job to Be Done.” He points out that trying to be all things to all students has a cost in overall effectiveness and overhead costs.

Clarifying what student success looks like for each program and measuring the outcome is Dr. Horn’s third recommended step. He notes that many community college presidents complain that measuring their performance by graduation rates is misleading because many students enroll to gain skills that will get them promoted. Once they gain the skills, they drop out because a degree was not the goal.

Dr. Horn writes that measuring by graduation rates is a legitimate gripe, but that doesn’t mean that community colleges shouldn’t measure outcomes. What it means is that student outcomes will differ across programs.

By coming up with other outcomes metrics, community colleges can build buy-in among faculty and staff, commit to continuous improvement, and showcase a fairer representation of its value for prospective students and other stakeholders like regulators and politicians. Using definitions outlined by third-party entities like the Education Quality Outcomes Standards Board and having the outcomes audited would provide further trust to the community (note – the EQOSB was developed by Entangled Solutions, Dr. Horn’s former employer).

Dr. Horn adds that relevant metrics for some academic programs might be job placement and salary growth. For another program, the relevant metric might add passing a specific assessment. For the mission of academic transfer, completion and transfer might be the metric to track. The key is to have clarity for each program and a process of consistent measurement.

I agree with Michael Horn’s recommendations, particularly those in Step 3. As always, the devil is in the details, and there will certainly be many details for any institution that serves students through multiple missions and many programs.

Whether the funding source comes from the state, the federal government, or the individual, all colleges would be better served by building program-specific outcomes metrics and tracking those metrics. As always, I’d enjoy hearing from you if you have an example of an institution that has used this approach for all of the students that it serves.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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