College Try

IN DECEMBER, MAYOR Tom Menino made headlines when he announced in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that he wanted to sell Boston’s City Hall and its barren plaza and build a gleaming new waterfront seat for city government. But it was another declaration that caused leaders in the state’s higher education system to take notice.

In unusually blunt terms, Menino told the audience that the state’s public community colleges were not getting the job done. “They are failing our students and failing our businesses,” Menino said. He singled out the two schools located in Boston, excoriating them for having the lowest graduation rates of any community colleges in the state. Menino urged the incoming Patrick administration to take notice—and action. “It is my sincere hope that the new governor will shake up that system,” the mayor said.

The comments did not go over well with leaders in the state’s community college system, which enrolls a total of 115,000 students and accounts for just over half of all public higher ed undergraduates in Massachusetts. The presidents of Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College, the two Boston campuses, both told a Boston Globe columnist that they were “baffled” by Menino’s sharp words. Even several months later, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Higher Education seems stung by the comments. “I think the mayor has plenty to do on his own,” says Patricia Plummer. “He could do so much more by preparing his kids to be ready for college,” she says, hitting back with the charge that failings at the community colleges can be traced to the failings of urban school districts like Boston’s to prepare students for college success.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino:
“They are failing our students
and failing our businesses.”
Menino certainly hit a raw nerve. But that may not be simply because his message lacked diplomatic subtlety. His broadside came as community colleges, here and nationally, are being challenged in ways they are not accustomed to.

“We’re at a kind of fulcrum moment,” says Richard Kazis, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston–based research and advocacy organization that works with community colleges across the country. “Community colleges have always prided themselves on access. Now they’re being asked to focus on success.”

The community college system, largely formed after World War II, has long been heralded as America’s great gateway to opportunity, offering job training and a path into higher education, often for lower-income students who are the first in their families to attend college. An open admission policy has long been a cornerstone of community colleges, but attention is turning toward what happens to students once they get in the door. “That’s a big change,” says Kazis. “That puts a spotlight on community colleges and their results that they’re not used to.”

That spotlight is shining more brightly for several reasons. Educational institutions from kindergarten through college are being asked to be more accountable for outcomes as the price for investment of public dollars. Community colleges are also becoming more important for the economy. It is estimated that jobs in Massachusetts requiring an associate’s degree or higher, which now account for one-third of the workforce, will represent 56 percent of all positions by 2012.

“I’m frustrated because the community colleges were supposed to be a steppingstone for kids,” says Menino, himself a junior college graduate who later went on to get an undergraduate degree. The mayor once dubbed the “urban mechanic” may not have the fix for community colleges, but it’s hard to argue with his pronouncement that all is not right under the hood.

“I think it’s indicative of a view that is actually widely held among political leadership, but only the mayor has really come out,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which commissioned a recent report calling for strengthened accountability and a plan to raise graduation rates at the state’s community colleges.

Neil Sullivan, who directs the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership that assists youths and adults with job training and educational services, takes a glass-half-full view of the conflict the mayor has stirred up. “Controversy always makes me hopeful,” he says. “Well-meaning, talented people start to make things happen.”

There is some reason to think Massachusetts could be at such a moment—and not only because of the mayor’s very public importuning. But the road to change is often rocky.


While Menino’s volley got plenty of notice, low graduation rates at the state’s community colleges had already been generating considerable debate. In late 2005, Steve Tocco, then the chairman of the state’s Board of Higher Education, urged the formation of a task force to study the issue.

In February, the task force issued its findings. It recommended that the 15 Bay State community colleges adopt strategies to achieve, within seven years, an aggregate graduation rate that exceeds the national average. The graduation rate for Massachusetts community colleges in 2005 was 17.4 percent, while the national rate was 21.5 percent, or 24 percent higher, according to the report. (John Schneider, the interim president of MassINC, was a member of the task force.)

“We all need to do better,” says David Hartleb, president of Northern Essex Community College and chairman of a council of state community college presidents. “The fact that there is some focus or spotlight on this topic is just fine. We welcome the attention.”

Not everyone in the community college world approaches the issue with that degree of equanimity.

Many community college leaders take strong exception to the way the graduation rate is calculated, saying it captures the experience of a minority of their students and does not accurately portray the overall effectiveness of their institutions. The graduation rate is a federally mandated measure and is the only common yardstick that can be used to compare colleges nationwide. But the rate is calculated using only the cohort of first-time, full-time students entering an institution. It measures those students’ success at obtaining an associate’s degree over three years—150 percent of the standard time required for the two-year program. (It similarly prorates 150 percent of the standard time, usually less than a year, for completing community college certificate programs, which are more narrowly targeted to specific job skills, and incorporates those results in the graduation rate.)

Massachusetts college officials point out that the graduation cohort makes up, on average, only about one-third of the entering student population to begin with, because of the large number of students who enroll part-time or who have already attended another college. What’s more, they say many of those in this cohort are forced to reduce their studies to part-time because of family and work demands. It would be virtually impossible for them to get a degree within three years, yet their experience continues to be counted, pulling the graduation rate down, say critics of the measure. Students who transfer to another school before getting an associate’s degree are also counted as “failures” in a community college’s graduation rate.

Isaura Araujo is a proud graduate of Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence. But the 30-year-old native of the Dominican Republic took 10 years to complete her courses. A single mother of three who first enrolled in 1996, Araujo says she had to start and stop her schooling multiple times while working a succession of low-paying jobs to support her children. “I had a goal in my head that I had to finish,” says Araujo, who is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business management information systems at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell.

Hartleb, Northern Essex’s president, recalls seeing her at a campus event last May close to graduation time. “And I said, ‘Why 10 years?” says Hartleb. “She said, ‘It’s called life.’”

Mary Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown and a member of the state task force, was one of the strongest voices against emphasizing graduation rates in its report. She says the focus on graduation rates can fuel the perception that it is “the most important measure of success for community colleges when, in fact, it isn’t.”

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, co-chairman of the Legislature’s higher education committee, echoes the criticism of the graduation rate. “I’m not going to criticize the community colleges for a faulty measurement,” he says.

But just how faulty is it?

There is no question that the measure fails to capture students who take longer than three years to graduate or transfer before completing an associate’s degree. Thus, overall rates would be higher with those factors taken into account. But it turns out to be a fairly reliable indicator of how colleges do in comparison with each another.

That’s the conclusion from a study by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. The report examined detailed outcome data for Florida’s 28 public community colleges. After ranking the colleges based on their performance on the standard three-year graduation rate, the researchers broadened the study sample to include all first-time degree-seeking students, whether part-time or full-time, as well as all first-time students, whether in a degree-seeking program or not. For members of the various groups, they assessed the percentage of their program completed over time. They also further manipulated the standard graduation rate by counting transfers or continued enrollment after three years as positive outcomes, addressing two major criticisms of the federal graduation rate.

What they found was that the ranking of colleges based on the federal graduation rate did not change significantly when the various added measures of success were considered. “The results suggest that colleges that are good at graduating students also tend to be more successful at retaining students and helping them accumulate credits,” wrote the researchers.


The findings that high graduation rates generally correlate with other positive outcomes of student success suggest the reverse would also be true: those community colleges with low completion rates among the narrowly defined full-time graduation cohort are likely to also perform poorly overall in advancing other students toward their goals.

That should trouble officials at Roxbury Community College. Banners strung to light posts along Columbus Avenue in front of the school declare that is the “Gateway to the Dream.” Graduation-rate data suggest that the dream is not realized for many students.

At 5 percent, the campus had, far and away, the lowest graduation rate of any Massachusetts community college in 2005. (The next lowest were Cape Cod Community College at 11 percent, Brockton’s Massasoit Community College at 12 percent, and Bunker Hill at 13 percent.) But when concerns about community college graduation rates first surfaced last year, officials at the Roxbury campus were dismissive.

“Graduation rates do not tell the story at all for us,” Stephanie Janey, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, told the Globe in January 2006. “We don’t even look at that, it’s not meaningful for us. We are dealing with the reality for our students.”

More than a year later, the school’s president, Terrence Gomes, sounds much the same theme. “It has not been a major worry,” he says of graduation rates. “Until the more recent discussion surrounding it was brought to light, there was not much conversation taking place.”

Gomes adds that the graduation rate is “not really capturing the majority of our student population,” since many students come not in search of a degree but for short-term acquisition of specific skills.

“We all need to do better,”
says David Hartleb,
president of Northern
Essex Community College.

Roxbury enrolls a much higher proportion of older, “non-traditional” students in its graduation-rate cohort (51 percent are over age 22, compared with a statewide figure of 13 percent), and a tilt toward older students is linked nationally to lower graduation rates. But RCC is also the second smallest of the state’s 15 community colleges—with a total enrollment in 2005 of 2,236—and small student bodies correlate with better graduation rates in national studies.

“Many of them are single heads of households,” Gomes says of his students. “Many of them come in need of academic assistance that we try to provide. As a result, they certainly cannot be expected to complete their coursework or graduate in what has been defined by [the federal standard] as a timely way.”

While that kind of response is common among community college officials in Massachusetts, it has frustrated some who are outside the system looking in.

“If the community colleges have decided that their mission is primarily to address folks who look like that, who have many of those characteristics, then we have to figure out how to make it work,” says Milton Little, CEO of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and a member of the state community college task force. “Other systems around the country have figured out ways to address their needs, and we have to do the same. So let’s stop moaning and groaning about what they bring and set about creating the kind of institutions that will do that.”

Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, says the graduation rate is “an important measure of quality,” and “when we’re graduating five in 100 over a three-year period of time, that would suggest to me that that’s an institution that failed in almost every way imaginable.”

But Tocco, the former Board of Higher Education chairman who now heads the University of Massachusetts board of trustees, says he encountered lots of naysaying from community college leaders when he proposed the task force to study graduation rates. “There were a million reasons why nothing could be done,” Tocco says of the resistance from some community college leaders. As for the graduation rates, he says, “We need to figure out how to ratchet up that number a lot.”


Some say the state also needs to more clearly define the mission for its community colleges.

North Carolina, for example, has focused on community colleges as a pipeline for workforce needs, with an emphasis on technical skills that can be acquired through a two-year degree and can lead to decent jobs in high-tech and life sciences. Other states, such as Florida, have structured their community colleges to serve as a seamless feeder system for the state’s four-year schools, with all community college graduates guaranteed admission, and a common curriculum across the two- and four-year schools in core entry-level subjects.

The Massachusetts community college system, say many observers, has been held back by the lack of a coherent vision. “There’s no statewide strategy for community colleges,” says Sullivan, the Boston Private Industry Council director. “There never has been, and that contrasts with other states.”

In states that we compete with, “they view community colleges as a particular strategic link in their workforce development strategy, in their economic development strategy,” says Philip Clay, MIT chancellor, who served as chairman of the board of trustees at Roxbury Community College from 2002 to 2006. “We don’t really have a mission for the community colleges. They’re just sort of there.”

Harrington, the Northeastern labor market economist, says that whether the primary goal is job-training or preparing students for four-year institutions, a community college must provide a “path [both] for upward mobility into higher levels of education attainment and also directly into the job market. And to the extent that it fails to do that, you have to think of it as a failure.”

To be sure, Massachusetts community colleges provide such a path for many students. That’s why a dozen young men are in a Bunker Hill Community College classroom paying close attention to instructor Akram Bhuiya on a Monday morning in early March. Standing at the blackboard, Bhuiya is diagramming electrical circuits to students enrolled in “Power and Distribution Systems,” part of a program the college started in 2004 in conjunction with NSTAR, the region’s main electrical utility company, and Local 389 of the utility workers’ union.

Eyeing a bulge of retirements that will leave it strapped for repair linemen, the company is trying to develop its own workforce pipeline. Students not only have to pass math proficiency standards to enroll in the program, they must also pass a review by NSTAR that includes a drug screening test and other employment standards. The all-in-one review happens at the outset because students who successfully complete the program are all but guaranteed a job at NSTAR, with a starting salary of about $50,000 (before overtime).

Bunker Hill students in a program
affiliated with the utility company
NSTAR are all but guaranteed a
job after graduation. (At center,
instructor Akram Bhuiya.)

“It makes school a lot easier knowing there’s something at the other end,” says Steve Mayner, 23, who attended Cape Cod Community College for three semesters, but without any clear direction, before enrolling in the NSTAR program.

NSTAR wanted the training to lead to a two-year associate’s degree, rejecting the idea of a shorter program that would only cover the narrow skills needed for the lineman’s job. The company hopes some graduates will seek further education and move into higher positions with the utility. “Maybe in the old days people just wanted a job,” says Thomas May, the company’s CEO, but today many want a degree as well, and “their versatility is a value to us.”

The almost airtight connection between the program and a good-paying job is a gold standard for the work of community colleges. Les Warren, Bunker Hill’s director of workforce programs, says he’s eager to find “other opportunities to try to duplicate this.” This kind of program needs to be established throughout the state, but at present there isn’t any overarching system of coordination, say those in the community college and workforce fields.

“We lack a strategic relationship between economic development, workforce development, and higher education,” says Don Gillis, executive director of the Massachusetts Workforce Board Association.” We have “12 agencies spending a quarter of a billion dollars in state and federal dollars each year any way they want,” says Gillis. “There’s a little program here, a little program there. What’s the strategy?”

That’s a question that a state Senate panel on public higher education asked two years ago. Its report, the recommendations from which were incorporated into a Senate higher education reform bill that died last year, included a call for a task force organized by the Board of Higher Education but also including workforce and economic development leaders. Such a group would meet regularly to analyze labor market trends, while a new position of workforce coordinator would be established within state Board of Higher Education, with the “sole job” of working with community and state colleges to develop “certificate and degree programs in high skill, high demand occupations.”

Along with their workforce development mission, community colleges serve as a staging ground for students to move on to four-year colleges, and there are several state programs with this goal in mind. Those graduating from a community college with a grade point average of at least 2.0 and at least 35 credits in “general education” courses are entitled to transfer their credits to a four-year state institution. Under another program, students can apply for joint admission, and completing a community college degree with a GPA of 2.5 or higher leads to automatic acceptance at a state college or university.

But unlike Florida and a handful of other states, Massachusetts doesn’t have a shared curriculum or uniform course numbering across community college campuses, let alone between community colleges and four-year schools. At a February forum on community colleges at the Boston Foundation, the president of Mass Bay Community College in Wellesley—Carole Berotte Joseph, who arrived two years ago from the state university system in New York—expressed astonishment that credits cannot automatically transfer even between community colleges.

While there are many courses of study at community colleges that allow graduates to advance to four-year institutions, these are established on a campus-by-campus basis. The Board of Higher Education’s Web site lists 2,300 different agreements that spell out which majors at which community colleges allow for full transfer into which four-year institutions.

In southeastern Massachusetts, a four-year-old consortium has sought to smooth out any bumps in transfers among five schools in the region. The program, simply called Connect, has linked Cape Cod Community College, Bristol Community College, Massasoit Community College, Bridgewater State College, and the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth into a regional compact to promote movement up the higher education ladder. The five institutions financially support the program’s two central staff members, and each campus has a full-time transfer coordinator that works with students coming from one of the other institutions.

The initiative has also begun work to unify some aspects of the curricula across the schools, using a grant to convene writing instructors from the five campuses to develop common approaches to teaching and shared expectations for student outcomes.

For those moving from a community college into one of the two four-year schools, “we know what you’ve studied,” says Jane Souza, the director of Connect. “We don’t want them only to transfer. We want them to transfer and succeed.”


One of the biggest obstacles to student success—and timely graduation—at community colleges is the fact that so many arriving students, including those coming directly out of high schools, are simply not prepared to do college-level work. Statewide, 61 percent of all first-time, full-time students in 2005 required at least one remedial course, according to the placement exam given to entering community college students. More than a quarter of these students required two or more such classes.

An important factor in graduation rates identified by the state task force was getting those students who require remedial math or English courses to complete them quickly so they can move on to classes that count toward a degree. The task force found that students who completed such studies in their first semester had a three-year graduation rate of 19.1 percent, higher even than the overall state graduation rate that includes students without remedial course needs. For those not completing remedial classes in their first term, however, the graduation rate falls off markedly, to just 3.8 percent.

Even better than timely completion of remedial courses would be reducing the number of students needing to take them. “A lot of the emphasis has been on graduating [high school] students with the assumption they are college-ready,” says Deborah Hirsch, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Partnership, a nonprofit that works to smooth the path from secondary school to higher education. “Our data suggest a lot of students may not be college-ready.”

Tracking the experience of recent Boston public school graduates, the group found that of those entering an area community college, 68 percent had to take at least one remedial class. Further, students were completing, on average, less than half of the credits needed in their first year to be on track to graduate in two years, and one-third had simply dropped out by the end of that first year.

“The transition from urban high schools to urban colleges and universities is not working well,” says Sullivan, the Private Industry Council director. “So what are we going to do?”

One thing education leaders say should be done is earlier assessment of college readiness, while there’s still time to bring students up to speed before college. The Boston Higher Education Partnership is operating a pilot study with three Boston high schools in which the college placement test is given to all 11th-graders. The partnership will be able to see “where students are failing and what plans could be put in place to deliver the remediation before they get to college,” says Hirsch. “It’s too expensive to remediate in college.”

“Can we do better? We always can,” says Menino, who has been given a taste of some of his own medicine with complaints about the poor college performance of many Boston high school graduates. “Some of these smaller high schools are dong wonderful things. Their principals and headmasters are very creative.”

One of those smaller schools is the Noonan Business Academy, a 260-student school in Dorchester. John Leonard, the school’s headmaster, says he has watched lots of graduates head off to community college and wind up taking lots of remedial education courses. “It’s a shock to us that they can pass the MCAS and fail the Accuplacer,” he says of the community college placement test.

Not part of the pilot program of Hirsch’s group, the Noonan school recently got Bunker Hill Community College to administer the placement test free of charge to all its juniors and seniors. “We’ve taken that information and tried to realign our curriculum,” says Leonard.

Another development designed to smooth the transition from high school to college is “dual enrollment” programs, which allow students to take college courses while still in high school. For example, Bunker Hill allows Noonan students to fill 12 seats per semester in classes at its Charlestown campus, with the college picking up the costs.

The state’s community college task force recommended the broader administration of the community college placement test to 11th-graders, as well $2 million in funding to support “dual enrollment.” (State-funded dual enrollment programs were eliminated in 2001, and efforts to restore them have thus far failed, but there are a handful of programs in operation using federal funds.)

Along with better preparation of incoming students is a need to focus on success after students arrive at community colleges. Last year, Bunker Hill received a federal grant of nearly $2 million to focus on increasing graduation rates. A major strategy will be to fund “learning communities,” which keep the same classmates together as they progress through courses, with the intent of fostering stronger ties both to the college and to the student body.

“Maybe with $2 million I’ll be able to make some inroads,” says Fifield, the college president, about the school’s graduation rate. But she is guarded in setting expectations for the students who will take part. “I’m not just going to pretend they’re going to turn into students from well-to-do families who have no other obligations,” she says.

Officials at City University of New York are speaking in considerably bolder terms about a similar effort to boost graduation rates at the system’s six community colleges. With a $20 million grant from the city, CUNY has set out to provide intensive mentoring and support services for 1,000 first-time community college students. “We are committed to graduating 50 percent of the students in three years and 75 percent in four years—and you know what the numbers in community colleges are,” says Selma Botman, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at CUNY.

“A credential matters in this world,” she says of the importance of getting students through to graduation. “We’re expecting to deliver. I think if we do this, it will be a national model to replicate.”

Replicating successful models is not only a matter of taking best practices from one institution and applying them elsewhere. Crucial to achieving meaningful improvement in outcomes, say education leaders, is expanding the small initiatives at any single community college across that same campus.

“No number of small, boutique, one-off programs will do the trick,” says Kazis of Jobs for the Future. “What’s needed is an institution-wide approach to student success.”

One significant barrier to expanding those efforts in Massachusetts is money.

“People don’t like to hear it,” says Jack Sprega, president of Bristol Community College, “but money for advisors and the support networks we have at the college for those students to succeed—it’s just not there.” His campus, like those throughout the state’s higher education system, is struggling in the face of huge cuts in state funding. Sprega says his budget, now $13.8 million, has been slashed 25 percent since 2001, while enrollment at Bristol has gone up by the same percent. “So business is booming, but we don’t have the support networks that we need, that we should have.”

Following the 2001 recession, Massachusetts saw the largest decrease in higher education spending in the country, and it is the only state spending less today on public higher education than it did 10 years ago.

“There’s a mythology that it’s easy and it’s cheap,” says Paul Raverta, interim president of Berkshire Community College, of the work done by two-year colleges. “It’s not. It’s complicated, difficult work. And it’s expensive.”


The funding challenge looming over the state’s higher education system is enormous, and without resources to bolster advising systems and other student support services, it may be difficult to bring about, and sustain, big improvements in community college completion rates. The task force also called for at least 75 percent of instructors at community colleges to be full-time faculty (the statewide average now is 60 percent), since studies link the higher percentage to better student outcomes. At the same time, money won’t be enough to drive a heightened focus on accountability for student outcomes. Some say what’s needed to drive systemic change is a change in the way the community college system is governed.

The state Board of Higher Education is the governing authority of the state’s 15 community colleges, but funding for the campuses is controlled entirely by the Legislature through the state budget. The recent Boston Foundation report concluded that without any true budgetary leverage, the higher ed board is regarded as “essentially powerless” to drive major change among the campuses or to direct adoption of system-wide programs or practices.

“In the states that have more centralized systems, they’re able to do things that you’re just pushing on a string in Massachusetts to do,” says Kazis, the Jobs for the Future vice president.

Plummer, the Board of Higher Education chancellor, does not disagree. “There are ways of doing things that Massachusetts isn’t even close to now,” she says. If a community college develops a highly successful program in an area of emerging employment growth, she says, “I don’t have the ability to send other resources their way or provide some other kind of incentives so that other colleges will follow suit.”

The Boston Foundation report urged consideration of a more centralized authority. “There should be a community college system in Massachusetts, with a chancellor or president,” says Grogan, the foundation president.

“You have a responsibility to move the system in the right direction with almost no authority,” says Tocco, the former higher ed board chairman. “You could argue that no matter what we do on the edges, until we deal with that central question, we’re never going to be able to move from here to there. If we establish a set of success standards for the system—and we were distributing the money based on those standards—you damn well bet the system will respond and improve.”

Dana Mohler-Faria, the governor’s education advisor, doesn’t reveal much detail about the thinking within the administration, which in March named task forces to examine the state’s K-12 and higher education systems. He does say, however, that efforts to improve the state’s community colleges have to be “enhanced by the right kind of governance structure, and I don’t think we have the right kind of governance structure.”

Others wonder whether a major push for governance centralization, which would set off fierce resistance from campuses, is the right focus. “Is the battle worth the blood that’s spilled?” asks William Guenther, of the education policy organization Mass Insight, about big governance reform efforts. Indeed, a drawn-out battle over governance might divert attention from other things that could be done to improve community colleges, or it could succeed but not necessarily lead to real change.

It’s easy to see the allure, however, as some states with more centralized structures seem to have more traction with their community colleges.

Florida has a chancellor who presides over the state’s system of 28 community colleges, each of which still has its own president and board of trustees. David Armstrong, the current chancellor, says he convenes a monthly meeting with all presidents, and they look at outcomes “that allow them to benchmark against each other and go back to campus to ask tough questions, such as ‘Why is it that we’re not doing well in this particular area?’” Armstrong adds, “I feel we have gone a long way to create a culture that looks at evidence to make policy decisions and assist students in success.”

While a differing governance structure might help Massachusetts do that, a strong commitment to the “culture of evidence” that Armstrong describes is probably the true key to improvement.

“Anyone who’s looking at their outcomes—that tells me that they’re looking to improve,” says Davis Jenkins, a research associate at Columbia’s Community College Research Center. “It doesn’t get people’s attention, but what really works is getting data to improve. ‘Here are the numbers coming out of developmental ed, finishing English, and math 101.’”

We have a ways to go in Massachusetts. While the recent state task force identified factors that appear to correlate with higher graduation rates, such as a higher percentage of faculty members having full-time status and the early completion of remedial education courses, the report provided no information on how individual campuses are doing by that measure.

“There seems to be a reluctance to compare quantitative information from one institution to another,” says Matt Carlin, former member of the Board of Higher Education and now a University of Massachusetts trustee. “At times it made getting things done or moving an agenda forward difficult. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he says. “I don’t know how you can have accountability without a lot of transparency or a lot of candor.”

Although the Board of Higher Education releases campus-based results each year on a set of performance measures, remarkably, the results have not included the federally mandated graduation-rate measure—which is referred to nationally as “student right-to-know” data, or information that should be readily accessible. The task force recommended that, in addition to developing other measures of student success for those not part of the graduation-rate cohort, the board of higher education begin to include the federal three-year graduation rate in performance reports along with data on graduation rates four, five, and six years after initial enrollment.

Indeed, the entire recent focus on the statewide graduation rate masks very different results across campuses, with five community colleges—Berkshire, Bristol, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Springfield Technical—recording graduation rates that exceed the national average.

And there is much more that can be done to build on strengths and target weaknesses at community colleges. “Well-run businesses can pinpoint where their successes and failures are,” says Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia University’s community college research center. “We can’t do that in higher education.” Or we don’t yet do it nearly enough, he might say.

Bailey’s is one of several research centers serving as consulting partners in a major initiative to improve student success at community colleges. The “Achieving the Dream” project, an effort of the Indiana–based Lumina Foundation for Education, has invested $50 million over the past four years to increase graduation rates by getting colleges to honestly examine shortcomings and focus on key markers of student success.

“To understand the data is to be accountable for the results today, but more importantly to improve the results,” says Martha Lamkin, CEO of Lumina. “Facts are friendly.”

“Are they completing a two-year degree, a certificate, or transferring to a four-year college?” asks Bonnie Gordon of MDC, a consulting firm that serves as the lead project manager for the Achieving the Dream initiative. “We don’t worry about the umpteen other things. We’re interested in student success as defined by student persistence, retention, completion.”

Florida was selected to be part of the first round of the initiative in 2004, with four of its community colleges awarded funding to focus on data analysis and setting clear goals. One of them, Valencia Community College in Orlando, had a head start.

“A commitment to measuring what we do and using the evidence to scale what works is a pretty important part of our culture,” says Sandy Shugart, the college’s president. Valencia recorded a 34 percent graduation rate in 2005, twice the Massachusetts aggregate rate that year. “Our success is not because we have students who come to us better prepared than students anywhere else,” he adds, pointing to a need for remedial classes among 60 percent of entering students.

“I think people who write off the graduation standard are ill-advised in doing so,” says Shugart. “Our graduation rates need to approach 50 percent or higher.”

But there has to be a willingness to first acknowledge a problem and recognize the need to address it. “You have to have this magic admixture of hope and despair,” he says. “A desire to change because you’re fed up with the results you’ve been getting, but you believe you can do better.”

Massachusetts will now face the test of whether it’s ready to follow that kind of path to change.

In June, Lumina, together with four local funders—the Balfour Foundation, the Boston Foundation, the Davis Foundation, and The Education Resources Institute (TERI)—will announce a $3.5 million grant to fund four Massachusetts community colleges to join the Achieving the Dream effort. It’s part of a big expansion of the project, which will bring in community colleges in six new states.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The effort could make a big difference at the four Massachusetts colleges that are chosen. But perhaps it will also help seed change more broadly.

“We’ve got to wrestle with this issue of completion rates. Otherwise the rest of this stuff is just rhetoric,” says Little, the United Way CEO. “The key to achieving the American dream is that piece of paper. It is the key to a whole different life and whole array of opportunities for that student and their family. That’s what these students have run in that door for. Our obligation as a system is to figure out how to help them do that.”