Community college: How to avoid 'dropout factories'

@CNNMoney June 7, 2012: 8:33 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- With tuition at four-year colleges skyrocketing, a growing number of high school seniors are looking to community colleges as a low-cost option.

But figuring out which community college will give you the best chance of transferring to your dream school can be difficult. There's very little standardized information out there that students can use to compare community colleges. As a result, many students end up enrolling in the community college that is closest to them, not realizing that a school just a few miles away might be a much better option.

One important factor students need to consider is a community college's success rate, whether the school has a proven track record of helping students graduate or transfer into four-year universities, says one of the nation's leading researchers into community colleges.

College Measures, a joint venture of the American Institutes of Research and the Matrix Knowledge Group, has created a chart for CNNMoney to help students find better options. They compiled each school's federally-reported graduation and transfer rates to create a searchable "success" rating of public community colleges. (see table)

Within this list, are what Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, warns are dozens of "dropout factories," where less than 25% of freshmen who enroll full-time earn a two-year associate's degree or transfer within three years.

Baton Rouge Community College in Louisiana, for example, reports that just 5% of the freshmen who started full-time in the fall of 2007 were able to graduate within three years. Like many community colleges, Baton Rouge did not report to the federal government the number of students who transferred to a university before graduating.

Many colleges have trouble tracking students after they leave, so they either don't report any transfers at all, or undercount the total, says Thomas Bailey, Director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

However, Schneider analyzed state data and found that about 14% of Baton Rouge's students transferred. Even using this higher number, the school has a "success rate" of no more than 19%, which is "extremely low," Schneider says.

Some other community colleges in Louisiana report much higher success rates, including some technical colleges with three-year graduation rates above 40%.

In its defense, Baton Rouge notes that it is a new campus that only won accreditation in 2004, and that today's students will benefit from new credit transfer agreements and easier credit transfer rules.

For those looking for a school that will boost their odds of transferring to a four-year institution, College Measures found about three dozen community colleges across the country with success rates of at least 70%. In California, for example, 74% of the 1,889 freshmen who started full time at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. in the fall of 2007 graduated or transferred within three years.

De Anza President Brian Murphy says many students drive past other community colleges to attend classes at De Anza. One big reason: De Anza sends about 800 transfer students a year to San Jose State, and several hundred more to University of California campuses.

However, some schools with high success rates, such as those in California, may have trouble maintaining them. Budget cuts are forcing community colleges to cancel classes, and four-year schools to slash the number of transfers they accept. Murphy warns, for example, that his school's high success numbers "cannot be sustained with the budget cutbacks."

While a good starting point, the "success rate" of a school isn't always exact and shouldn't be the only factor students consider, said Schneider and other community college experts. (Read: Six steps to choosing the best community college for you.)

Different colleges have different ways of counting students. Community colleges self-report graduation and transfer rates and they aren't audited by the federal government so there might be different interpretations of what constitutes a "full-time freshmen," for example, said Schneider, who served as the commissioner of the government's National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 through 2008.

In addition, a school's overall numbers don't reflect how any individual student will do, says Thomas Bailey, Director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. Since public community colleges take all applicants, those in areas with troubled public schools tend to have lower graduation rates.

Officials at Baltimore City Community College, for example, say that one reason less than 20% of freshmen at that college finish or transfer within three years is that 97% of the incoming freshmen have to take at least one basic writing, math or other course to make up for what they didn't learn in high school.

But even community colleges with low success numbers offer any student who is determined to study a path to a good career or a bachelor's, says Bailey, who adds: "Anybody who goes in with a plan is going to get a lot more out of the college."

More on choosing a community college:

How does your community college stack up? See the list

6 tips for choosing the best community college for you To top of page

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