Teachers College, Columbia University

Is Student Success Labeled Institutional Failure? Student Goals and Graduation Rates in the Accountability Debate at Community Colleges

By Thomas Bailey, Davis Jenkins & D. Timothy Leinbach

This paper explores the impact of students’ reasons for enrollment and educational expectations on their outcomes and, thus, on the performance of their college, showing that community college students with degree and transfer goals are more likely to graduate or transfer.

An analysis suggests that even among students who state that their goal is a degree, certificate, or transfer, fewer than 50 percent achieve that goal within six years. Moreover, large gaps in success rates for Black and Hispanic students cannot be explained by differences in either their reason for enrolling or their educational expectations. The authors also show that students’ educational expectations should not be treated as fixed, and that the experience of college has a role in shaping expectations.

The authors conclude that educators and policymakers should be cautious in using student goals as benchmarks for success, and that assumptions about student goals should not be used to discourage efforts to improve overall performance and reduce disparities between groups. Colleges need to recognize the dynamic nature of student intentions and expectations, the factors that shape these goals before entering college, and the institutional role in shaping them while at college.

A brief of this paper, The Effect of Student Goals on Community College Performance Measures, is available for download.