Success in Community College: Do Institutions Differ?


Community colleges are complex organizations and assessing their performance, though important, is difficult. Compared to 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges serve a more diverse population and provide a wider variety of educational programs that include continuing education and technical training for adults, and diplomas, associates degrees, and transfer credits for recent high school graduates. Focusing solely on the latter programs of North Carolina’s community colleges, we measure the success of each college along two dimensions: attainment of an applied diploma or degree; or completion of the coursework required to transfer to a 4-year college or university. We address three questions. First, how much variation is there across the institutions in these measures of student success? Second, how do these measures of success differ across institutions after we adjust for the characteristics of the enrolled students? Third, how do our measures compare to the measures of success used by the North Carolina Community College System? Although we find variation along both dimensions of success, we also find that part of this variation is attributable to differences in the kinds of students who attend various colleges. Once we correct for such differences, we find that it is not possible to distinguish most of the system’s colleges from one another along either dimension. Top-performing institutions, however, can be distinguished from the most poorly performing ones. Finally, our adjusted rates of success show little correlation either to measurable aspects of the various colleges or to the metrics used by the state.

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  1. 1.

    National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2011, Table 199.

  2. 2.

    National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2011, Tables 216 and 224., 11/27/12.

  3. 3.

    Achieving the Dream,, 8/15/11.

  4. 4.

    The Student Right to Know Act, also known as the "Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act" (P.L. 101-542), was passed by Congress November 9, 1990. Title I, Sect. 103, requires institutions eligible for Title IV funding to calculate completion or graduation rates of certificate- or degree-seeking, full-time students entering that institution, and to disclose these rates to all students and prospective students., 12/27/1.

  5. 5.

    Molotsky (1990).

  6. 6.

    Bailey (2012), for example, emphasizes the “multiple missions” of community colleges.

  7. 7.

    The core indicators are: (a) progress of basic skills students, (b) passing rates on licensure and certification exams, (c) performance of college transfer students, (d) passing rates of students in developmental courses, (e) success rates of developmental students in subsequent college-level courses, (f) satisfaction of program completers and non-completers; g) curriculum student retention, graduation, and transfer; and (h) client satisfaction with customized training (Critical Success Factors, 2010, p. 5).

  8. 8.

    The conceptual framework for this section is based on the more general discussion of measuring education quality in (Ladd and Loeb 2012).

  9. 9.

    Besides being included in the Education Department’s College Navigator, by virtue of the Student Right to Know Law, they are also used, for example, by Achieving the Dream and Complete College America (2011).

  10. 10.

    Under an agreement between Duke University and the NC Community College System, the NCERDC linked student-level records from its archive with student records provided by the NCCCS Data Warehouse. Information on institutions was also drawn from these administrative sources as well as from the data files maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics. Thus, information on the public school experiences of students, including test scores, was integrated with information on the experiences of students enrolled in the curriculum programs of NC community colleges between fall 2001 and spring 2009.

  11. 11.

    A similar approach is a common theme in the HCM Strategists project Context for Success. See, for example, Bailey (2012), Clotfelter (2012) and Cunha and Miller (2012).

  12. 12.

    These mean residuals are analogous to institution fixed effects.

  13. 13.

    For applied success, this test produces an F statistic of 3.79, which is significant at the 1 % level. Dropping the 23 outliers with the largest deviations from the mean adjusted college effect produced an F statistic of 1.38, which is not significant at the 5 % level. For transfer success, the comparable test produces an F statistic of 3.19 but dropping just 10 outliers in this case makes it impossible to reject the hypothesis at the 5 % level.

  14. 14.

    The program is the Tier I Professional Development Program, which allows faculty and staff funds and released time for industry training. 12/1/11.

  15. 15.

    Sources are shown in Table 7, along with definitions.


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We are grateful to the Smith Richardson Foundation for supporting this research, to the North Carolina Education Research Data Center and North Carolina Community College System for providing access to administrative records, to Jeff Smith for helpful comments, and to D. J. Cratty, Katherine Duch, Megan Reynolds and Eugene Wang for statistical and research assistance

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Correspondence to Clara G. Muschkin.



See Tables 6 and 7

Table 6 Variable definitions for student-level table
Table 7 Variable definitions for institutional-level tables

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Clotfelter, C.T., Ladd, H.F., Muschkin, C.G. et al. Success in Community College: Do Institutions Differ?. Res High Educ 54, 805–824 (2013).

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  • Community colleges
  • Institutional measures
  • Performance metrics
  • Student success