Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed article about higher education policy proposals that may see the light of day in the Biden administration is well worth the read. That said, I coughed when I saw this:

“Colleges and universities should be held accountable not only when graduates do not pay back their loans, but also …”

Did you catch that?

It’s a common mistake, but one that puts community colleges in an artificially bad light. Not all graduates have loans. In fact, most of ours don’t. At my own college, the median student loan debt for a graduate is zero. You’d think that would be a good thing, but it actually works against us.

It works against us because by and large, the students who have loans are among the most economically desperate. They’re not a representative sample.

A student from a family making, say, $75,000 per year can probably afford to pay our $5,000 annual tuition without loans. That same student attending a college that charges $50,000 tuition would have to take out loans to do it. That means that the group of “borrowers” at the more expensive college includes students from more affluent families. More affluent students are more likely to have the economic backup from family to avoid defaults. But under a performance-based system, we’re judged more harshly for having less affluent borrowers.

There’s also an assumption embedded in the quote that people with loans are graduates. Many are, but the highest default rates are among those who only attended for a semester or two and then dropped out. That’s why the highest default rates are among the borrowers with the lowest cumulative debt. In fact, among actual graduates — those who completed degrees — the default rates are much lower than the overall rate. Given the complicated and precarious economic circumstances more common among community college students, we have more students drop out (or, more accurately, step away for a while). They can easily fall into the “some debt, no degree” zone in which defaults are highest.

It’s obviously true that community colleges have a moral duty to do what they can to help students complete their degrees. But it’s also true that sometimes life happens, and it’s likelier to happen to students with less economic cushion. Punishing the colleges for that is irrelevant at best, and counterproductive at worst. Success coaches, food pantries, full-time faculty and the development of OER all help students; they also all cost money.

Judging colleges by the salaries made by recent graduates also hurts community colleges by excluding the students who transfer and complete higher degrees before entering the career job market. Those are many of our most successful students. But a student who graduates Brookdale and spends the following year as a junior at Rutgers isn’t making much yet. When they graduate and get a good job, they show up in Rutgers’s stats (or not), but not in ours. I know that transfer flies below the radar of many policy discussions, but to my mind, students who start at community college and then move on to complete their bachelor’s degrees — whether they bothered to get an associate’s first or not — got what they came for. They should be counted as successes, because in every meaningful sense, they are. But they don’t show up in our graduate salary numbers, and if they transferred before graduating, they actually count as dropouts.

That wouldn’t matter so much if we didn’t condition funding on hitting those metrics. But with both the state and the feds leaning in that direction, we need to get those metrics right. I don’t think we should be punished for having low tuition, or for sending students on to bachelor’s degrees and higher. If anything, we should be rewarded for those. But the assumptions embedded in common measures are so entrenched that they can fly by almost unnoticed, halfway through an otherwise unremarkable sentence.

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