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MI community college graduation rate is cause for concern

New data released this month by the National Student Clearinghouse shows that the six-year graduation rate for community college students inched up slightly. The six-year graduation rate measures the percentage of students who completed a degree or credential in six years. The most current data reflect the completion rates for students who began studying in 2015.

Although the completion rate has trended upwards in most recent years, last year (2020), it dipped slightly. In 2021, however, the rate of community college graduation increased more than any other education sector in the US. Currently, the national average six-year graduation rate among community colleges is 42.2%.

State-level data show some reason for concern. The table below shows the completion, transfer and drop-out rates for Michigan community college students who began their studies in 2015.

Outcome Under 20 20-24 25+
Graduated 42.0% 26.8% 32.9%
Transferred 12.5% 5.1% 2.7%
No longer enrolled 44% 61.6% 59%

The data show two things of interest. First, for all the emphasis placed on community colleges as a transfer option, comparatively few students actually continue their studies at a four-year university. That calls into question the strategy of reducing or eliminating occupational/vocational programs for transfer programs that few students use.

Second, it’s hard not to notice the high number of students who leave a Michigan community college with no degree. This loss impacts not only the student, but also the local economy. Fewer graduates mean a less trained workforce. This is unattractive to employers looking for access to a skilled labor pool.

State graduation rate is better than WCC’s

Here’s another thing that’s hard to miss: Michigan’s community college graduation rate is significantly lower than the national average. With only slightly more than 3 out of 10 community college students (of all ages) completing two-year degree programs, employers know that they cannot count on finding a skilled labor force in Michigan. That’s not much incentive to make technology-heavy capital investments here.

Community college students report a relatively small number of barriers that prevent them from completing their educations. In a recent study by University of Florida researcher, money, time pressures, family care responsibilities, lack of adequate advising, health reasons, employment conflicts, academic difficulties with math and science courses, Internet access issues and online course delivery all emerged as reasons community college students leave the classroom behind.

Community colleges could address many of these challenges by providing additional financial aid, support services like on-campus daycare services, on-campus health and mental health services and tutoring. (And there is simply no excuse for low-quality academic advising.)

Washtenaw Community College’s most recently reported graduation rate is 27%, according to US Department of Education data. Remediating WCC’s lower-than-state-average graduation rate must become a high priority. A graduation rate that is 15 points lower than the state average is an insufficient return on the considerable investment Washtenaw County taxpayers make in Washtenaw Community College.

It is beyond time for the Board of Trustees to demand accountability from WCC’s very well compensated administration.

Photo Credit: University of Central Arkansas, via Flickr