Shopping in the Freezer

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You know how sometimes you forget about food that has been in the freezer for a while? Every so often we make a point of “going shopping in the freezer,” or reminding ourselves of what’s in there so we can build that week’s recipes around them. It takes conscious effort, but it prevents rebuying things we already have. It may deprive future archaeologists of valuable artifacts, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Last week I asked my wise and worldly readers to imagine a scenario: If you were in on the building of a new data system for your state’s community colleges, what questions would you want it to be able to answer?

I was surprised at how many responses amounted to shopping in the freezer; they were requests for data that most colleges already, and routinely, collect. That suggested to me that in many cases, the issue is less about developing a new system than in opening the freezer. For example:

“Comparison of success rates for full-term, late start and compressed classes for developmental and nondevelopmental classes.” Excellent idea, but this should already be done routinely by a given college’s IR (institutional research) office.

“Which courses are acting as weed-out courses, and for which major?” Experience tells me that different people will draw wildly different conclusions from this information, but the information itself should be readily available already.

“Of students in a particular department or major, what percentage transfer out but still graduate? Similarly, what percentage of graduates from one department started in another department?” This should be a routine item in program reviews. It can be revealing in useful ways. For example, many community college nursing programs don’t have room to take all of the students who want to enroll. (Clinical placements are often the limiting factor.) Where do those students go? At a previous college, we found that a surprising number of them found their way to social work. That helped inform our advising.

In some cases, shopping in the freezer may be a good start. Local IR offices may have information that would be useful if anyone asked for it. Depending on local protocols, questions may have to be routed through deans, but that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, many suggestions went beyond what’s already collected as a matter of routine. Some highlights:

“Independent of graduation or credential, the percentage of students who report that attending the community college facilitated the achievement of the goal that prompted their enrollment.”

Yes, but be very careful. Financial aid rules stipulate that students are “degree-seeking” to be eligible for aid. That’s a tricky term, given that many students are seeking a four-year degree but plan to do only one year or so at the community college as an on-ramp. In those cases, an honest answer to the question about “degree-seeking” is “yes, but not here.” (That’s different from a student who is matriculated at a four-year school and who takes a summer class at a CC; those are considered “visiting students.” The “on-ramp” student isn’t “visiting.”)

All of that said, I agree that we do community colleges an injustice by assuming that every student has the same goal. Anyone who has worked with our students can tell you that’s just not true. The student who does a year, transfers and graduates with a bachelor’s degree may regard their time at the CC as a success, even if they show up in our numbers as a dropout.

“Credits not accepted for transfer at the state’s four-year public institutions.” Absolutely, but I’d phrase it differently. Many four-years claim to “accept” credits, but they only give them “free elective” status, which renders them irrelevant. “Free elective” status is where credits go to die. Instead, I’d look at how many credits the student had to take at the four-year school posttransfer. That makes it harder to use elective status as a fig leaf. Admittedly, we’d need to distinguish students who changed majors from those that didn’t, but that seems within reach.

“The correlation between food insecurity, housing insecurity, jobs/hours worked and the time to graduation or transfer.” Yes. We have good national data on this—thank you, Sara Goldrick-Rab—but I don’t know if we have it at state levels. If we did, it could help bolster the prospects of certain policy interventions. A big yes to this.

“Where students go after community college.” Hoo boy, yes. We have pretty good information on transfers, but employment data often stop at the state line. When you’re in a state like New Jersey, where people routinely cross state lines for jobs, the data can be misleading. I’d also love to get similar information for students who cycle in and out of enrollment, which is far more common than the policy discourse acknowledges.

Finally, a big yes to the correspondent who suggested real-time connections among financial aid data, taxes and enrollment data in the name of reducing the friction of transactions. For example, in filling out the FAFSA, we can import tax data. But after doing that, we still have to break out earnings by each parent. This is silliness. If the W-2s are already there, what’s the point?

I’ve missed a few and combined a few; there’s no shortage of good ideas out there. Thank you to everyone who took the time to write or tweet! And don’t be afraid to check the freezer; there may be some good stuff in there.

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