Community college administrators are grappling with ways to better measure students' progress, whether they graduate, complete a few courses or obtain certification.
Their goal is to increase retention, a key topic at this month's White House's summit on community colleges.
Educators welcomed the publicity the summit provided, even if it didn't explore new ground.
"We've been focused on improving retention for years," said Joe D. Forrester, president of Community College of Beaver County, where about 3,000 full- and part-time students are enrolled.
Part of the approach is to ensure students leave with documents demonstrating they've completed a program of study, such as an associate's degree or certification in an area of study, said Mary Francis Archey, vice president of learning and student development at Community College of Allegheny County, which has about 21,000 students.
"That documentation is what gets students a job," Archey said.
Graduation rates at CCBC, CCAC, Westmoreland County Community College and Butler County Community College all remained at or below the national average between 2004 and 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Retention rates -- the number of students enrolled for fall semester who return to school a year later -- were at or below the national average.
Administrators said that belies reality at their schools. Many students are part-time, and the retention and graduation rates measure full-time, first-time degree or certificate-seeking undergraduates, they said.
"Our average time to graduation is actually between three-and-a- half and four years, which means that a large number of our students do achieve their academic goals but are not reflected in our official three-year graduation rate," said David Hoovler, special assistant to the president at CCAC.
Other students transfer to four-year schools without being credited for earning a degree at the two-year school.
"Some students who intend to transfer actually complete all of the credits for an associate's degree, but never apply for graduation," said Brian Hayden, CCBC's director of institutional research. "They believe that the real value is in the four-year degree."
WCCC officials provide one-on-one mentoring and case management, said school spokeswoman, Anna Marie Palatella. It works to retain students who have come from the juvenile court system.
Those examples illustrate how WCCC has changed its mission, said Dr. Carol Rush, vice president of academic affairs and student services.
"A decade ago, WCCC …