The state of college completion initiatives at U.S. community colleges

October 31, 2017
  • AACRAO Connect
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Technology
Silhouettes wearing graduation gowns as they throw their caps into the air in a display of celebration.

Since President Obama introduced the 2020 goal to increase the percentage of citizens with college degrees, completion rates and how to improve them have been at the forefront of higher education institutional agendas. AACRAO researchers Wendy Kilgore, Ph.D., Director of Research at AACRAO and Jacob I. Wilson, Research Intern, set out to understand how certain completion initiatives are impacting student completion rates.

On Monday, October 29, the official report, The State of College Completion Initiatives at U.S. Community Colleges was released to all AACRAO members. Immediately following the release, Kilgore and Wilson presented their findings at the 2017 Strategic Enrollment Management Conference.

One key point from the findings is the ability to trust the accuracy of institutional data is paramount to buy-in for completion efforts. It begins before students arrive to campus.



  • Apparent decrease in the focus on college completion from an initiatives perspective
  • IPEDS data reporting change now captures and reports on completion data for all part-time and none-first-time credential seeking students
  • U.S. lags behinds other countries in sub-baccalaureate attainment (tied for 9th)


  • More than half of the states have completion initiatives
  • Increasingly tied to funding models
  • Legislative proposals in the works for several


  • Growth in focus on completion
  • Anecdotes about challenges of multiple initiatives
  • Current environment of decline of new students (particularly traditional students)

Institutional Results

The institutional survey consisted of 97 community colleges across the country. Institutions were asked about types of completion initiatives, engagement and awareness amongst people at all levels (including students), adequacy of funding, active or passive student engagement, and measures of success.

  • 70% of those surveyed indicated there was at least one national-level initiative (e.g., AACC’s Pathways Project, Complete College America)
  • 58% of those surveyed indicated at least one state-level initiatives (e.g., Drive to 55, Complete Florida, Mathways)
  • 88% of those surveyed indicated at least one institutional based initiative

Almost all institutions rate their initiatives as extremely effective, very effective, or moderately effective. For institutions with internal and/or external reporting requirements related to initiatives), the majority view meeting those requirements were as “moderately challenging.”

Student Results

The student survey consisted of 1,087 students from across the country and were asked things like, what was the reason for attending a community college? DId you use student services offered? Please rate the institution's efforts to improve completion. And, what was your familiarity with the completion agenda of the institution?  

  • ALL were happy with the institution's efforts to help students
  • Advising and guidance counseling top the list of student services reported as helping them meet their educational goal
  • Only one-third report completing an educational plan of study and less than one-quarter used a guided pathway for completion (yet, institutions reported these tools as key components to their initiatives)

Top 3 use of student services (student perspective)

  • Completing the FAFSA: 64% (Only 31% felt completing the FAFSA was a requirement; while 69% thought it was voluntary.)
  • Orientation: 60% (57% felt it was a requirement; while 43% thought it was voluntary)
  • Course placement testing/assessment: 58% (69% felt it was a requirement; 31% thought it was voluntary)

Some other interesting perceptions of mandatory versus voluntary

  • 28% of students surveyed felt it was mandatory to have a guided pathway, while 72% felt it was voluntary
  • 21% felt meeting with a student success coach was mandatory, while 79% feel it is voluntary
  • 79% of institutions say that academic advising is required for students, but only 27% of students reported it required
  • 7% of institutions reported block scheduling as required, while 52% of students reported it required

What do all of these results mean? Kilgore said institutions are going to have to go through a culture shift and handle the many challenges of change. Dr. Karen Miller, Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Cuyahoga Community College said, “The culture of the college is now one of the success and completion. Everyone talks about it, everybody understands that they’re aligned to that work, our president talk about ti at every opportunity that he can, everybody knows that IPEDS means.”

Kilgore concluded that U.S. community colleges will continue to embrace change and seek creative, scalable, repeatable and measurable means to increase college completion rates.

Upcoming challenges include:

  • Access to data that can be trusted and used readily
  • Increase in performance-based funding at the state level
  • Ongoing inability to attribute national level completion to community colleges for students who transfer before earning a credential

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Chancellor, California Community College System says, “The job of the community college is going to be more important in the new administration...the administration is going to challenge us to be better connected to the economy and workforce needs. But that’s something we’re doing already.”



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