Posted by: Tom Ross | November 20, 2013

Ender’s Game

[Click on the title above to view on the CTE Central Blog website.]

How do we measure the success of community college students? Traditionally, it is a student who earns a degree or certificate or who transfers to a four-year college. This is called completion, and increasingly policy makers are making the completion stakes higher—including linking completion to financial aid or funding formulas.

But what if an individual comes to a community college just to take course or a sequence of courses to enhance or update a work skill? What if that student is employed and sent by his employer for this purpose? Or what if this student is seeking employment in an area that is new to him and wants to gain a skill to get his foot in the door of this industry?

Barstow2aWorking toward a welding certificate at Barstow Community College

And what if he succeeds? What if he returns to work with a certificate of achievement and gets a promotion and a raise? Or takes the new skill he has learned to local industry—one he knows usually hires from within—and begins his career this way?

If a student succeeds but no one notices it, is it still a success?

Two researchers are listening to these successes and documenting the results. Kathy Booth, a researcher at WestEd and Peter Riley Bahr, associate professor at the University of Michigan, are collecting data on these students. They have named them “skills-builders.”

The definition is “a student who is outside the completion framework, i.e., students who take a variety of noncredit and non-completion directed job-training programs, such as apprenticeship programs, courses that prepare students to earn an industry certification or professional license as well as contract education programs that enable employees to upgrade their skills in fields such as public safety or technology.  Some students take only the few courses that they need to secure a new job or advance in an existing one.”

The result for skills-builders? For many, significant and measurable wage gain.


From “The Missing Piece: Quantifying Non-Completion Pathways to Success” by Kathy Booth and Peter Bahr

As more states seek to link funding to student outcomes, Booth and Bahr feel that colleges need ways to measure and evaluate non-completion successes in order to make informed decisions, including:

  • External credentials, such as industry certifications and state licenses, which may hold greater value in the workplace than a community college credential
  • Improvements to working conditions, such as finding a job in their field of study or transitioning from part-time to full-time work
  • Job retention that is dependent on periodic recertification in specific skills or bodies of knowledge
  • Earnings gains that clarify how much earnings increased relative to wages before college and whether these increases help students secure a family-sustaining wage

Dr. Bahr sums it up thus: “Expanding the measurements of success to include non-completion outcomes like earnings can help give a more accurate and well-rounded picture of how community college courses are helping student achieve their goals.”

We will update you on the skills-builders research as it comes in. For more information, see these resources:

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