Academic journal article Community College Review

The Denominator as the "Target"

Academic journal article Community College Review

The Denominator as the "Target"

Article excerpt

Abstract

Various analyses have used the transfer rate as a performance indicator for community colleges, but the question of what constitutes an appropriate denominator in the transfer-rate equation remains a point of contention. This article examines the potential drawbacks of using student-reported educational goals to determine which students are included in the denominator and notes how the behavioral signal approach--based on the courses students take and complete may be a more appropriate alternative. In addition, the article discusses the prospects of employing a "transfer opportunity diagnosis" based on multiple indicators.

Keywords

transfer rates, research methods, student goals, use of information

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In the fervor to measure the performance of community colleges, various analysts have proposed and applied rates of success, such as transfer rates and graduation rates. The transfer mission in particular receives plenty of attention because of its role in economic mobility, and the transfer rate has, therefore, emerged as a particularly salient performance indicator (Cohen, 2005). These transfer rates generally represent a proportion of a target population that successfully enrolls at a 4-year college. This seems quite simple. The transfer rate is just this:

(those in the target population who transfer)/(the target population)

The numerator of this rate can cause headaches because it requires some way to track a community college student after he or she has left the community college. However, over time, institutions have discovered a generally effective way to count this numerator, especially with the help of data matches made possible by the National Student Clearinghouse (Boughan, 2001; Shoenecker & Reeves, 2008). Yes, there can be some undercount of the people who transfer, because students sometimes do not give the community college adequate or accurate identifying data, and some 4-year colleges and 2-year colleges fail to submit student enrollment data to the organization that performs a data match to help us count transfers. There has been some discussion about how many units a student must complete at a community college prior to enrollment at a 4-year college in order for us to count a student as a vertical transfer. But we generally do not have that much controversy about what kind of student history qualifies as a transfer.

On the other hand, the denominator of this rate, the target population, seems to have frustrated the community college research community for the past few decades (Banks, 1990; Spicer & Armstrong, 1996). This is important because the denominator really controls whom we can include in the numerator. Researchers have noted different ways to define the denominator, the target population, and substantially different transfer rates have been calculated as a result of these different definitions (Horn & Lew, 2007). Thus, the definition of the target population in higher education poses a special problem. For example, the transfer rate is quite different from the success rate for heart surgeries. The denominator for heart surgeries is unequivocally the count of those patients who receive heart surgery at a given hospital. Heart surgery is a specific and tangible procedure (with generally tangible outcomes, although we sometimes need to wait a while for a valid evaluation). The denominator here results from a joint decision (consent of the patient and the judgment of his or her doctors) that relies partly on client desires (the patient's desire to be healthy) and partly on expert judgment (clinical decision making based on diagnostic information about the patient's condition and the prospect of benefit from surgery). That does not sound much like the various definitions used to place community college students into the target population of transfer.

The Self-Reported Educational Goal

What is the procedure involving transfer that admits students to the target population for the community college transfer mission? …

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