Community Colleges & Reform

3 Short-Term Measures for Showing Whether College Reform Will Work

A meta-research project has proposed three "short-term" measures for determining whether specific student success transformation initiatives are taking hold. The authors of "Early Momentum Metrics: Why They Matter for College Improvement" have suggested that "credit momentum," "gateway momentum" and "program momentum" can predict long-term success. The project was undertaken by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College in Columbia University.

Credit momentum emphasizes the need to earn enough credits to arrive at college completion. The researchers have settled on at least 15 semester credits in the first term or at least 30 in the first academic year. As the eight-page brief explained, previous research has found that students in both two- and four-year institutions who pursued 15 credits rather than 12 in their first term — a difference of a single course — "graduated at significantly higher rates within six years of initial enrollment." This was especially true for community college students, the report noted. First-timers in community college who went after 15 credits were nine percentage points more likely to earn a degree and five points more likely to earn a bachelor's degree than were similar students who began with 12 credits. In addition, the higher-credit students "paid substantially less" for their degrees in tuition and fees.

Gateway momentum was defined as taking and passing college-level math and English in the first year. The brief cited a Tennessee Board of Regents study that found that nearly half of Tennessee community college students (48 percent) who passed gateway math and English courses in their first year graduated within six years, compared with 18 percent of students who didn't pass these courses. The same study, the brief pointed out, also found that over the three years colleges took to transform the "guided pathways" at scale correlated with an increase in the number of community college students who passed college-level English and math gateway courses in their first year, a rise of 79 percent, from 10 percent to 18 percent for all students, and a lift of 240 percent, from 3.5 percent to12 percent, for students of color.

In program momentum, the student has taken and passed at least nine semester credits in his or her field of study during the first academic year. For example, the Tennessee study found that 40 percent of community college students who completed at least nine semester credits in their program of study during their first year earned a college credential in six years, compared with just 16 percent of those who didn't attempt nine credits in a program area.

The purpose of the brief was to encourage the use of "near-term momentum rates" as a signal for expected improvements in completion rates over the long term. "Reformers do not have to wait several years before they can begin to see evidence of the effects of reforms," the researchers stated. "CCRC's experience with guided pathways reforms suggests that upward trends in these indicators should begin to provide evidence of reform effects within one to two years following implementation of guided pathways practices for all entering students (which itself can take two to three years or longer)."

On top of that, the report said, the use of early-momentum metrics can offer evidence of quick wins and help "reframe and focus reform efforts in positive ways."

The brief is available on the CCRC website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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