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.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence