The Case for Course Completion as the Single Measure of Student Success


(Note: The opinions and positions presented in this article do not represent the opinions or positions of the Academic Senate. The piece is designed to give one perspective on the larger issue of defining and measuring student success.)

Counting helps people. They count their blessings, count text messages, count money in the bank, and count friends on Facebook®. Counting may go wild, however, if the state decides to have multiple measures of student success. Colleges will become experts at counting and storing counts of student performance, program performance, this, that, and everything in between. If there was only one measure of student success that we had to count and for which colleges are accountable, then colleges could focus only on that single metric. Budget decisions, college planning, collaborations on campus, and virtually anything that supports that single metric would easily rise to the top of the college to-do list. And if that is the case, then the only metric that makes sense is successful course completion, and here’s why.

Students come to community colleges to take courses. Yes, they also come to pursue programs and transfer, but the first step is enrolling in and passing one or more classes this term. Some students arrive at the door looking for only one or two classes in topics such as CPR, and some attend community college taking a full load to prepare for transfer. They enroll in a term of 16-18 weeks, which seems like a lifetime to many of them. Measuring course completion puts all work in present tense rather than future tense, as in “will earn a degree or certificate or will become transfer ready or will complete a basic skills sequence.” Students’ lives are complicated, affected by the demands of adult life, and often staying committed to a course and the instructor for 16-18 weeks may be the longest relationship any of them sustain. Keeping students focused on passing their current courses provides a daily challenge for counselors and discipline faculty, and expecting students to stay attentive and committed beyond the end of one term may not be realistic.

Student success implies a joint venture – a partnership – between institutions and students, with students owning primary responsibility for their own success and institutions creating and maintaining environments where students can find success. To increase student success, we must search out the source of nourishment for the partnership which is the classroom. In the classroom, students are expected to prepare for class and exams, attend class, complete assignments, and contribute to the learning environment of their peers in the class through discussions and group projects. Teachers, on behalf of the college, prepare classes according to the designated content of the course, facilitate and assess learning and students’ knowledge and skills in acquiring the expected outcomes, and provide immersion for students into the discipline, connecting it to the world around us, current events, and lives of students. This synergistic relationship between teacher and student is the heart of the educational experience leading to student success and should be the only measure of success of the colleges. We can’t risk turning attention away from the classroom with other measures of success.

Colleges are already set up to focus on course completion. Everything that happens at a college is designed around helping students get into the right course and complete it. From placement processes to prerequisites to visits to the counselor, the components of matriculation are designed to assist students with being in the right class. Once the student is in the class, there are tutoring services, supplemental instruction, office hours, and other instructional support options that help facilitate success in the course. Minimum qualifications, hiring practices, and evaluations ensure the most qualified and effective instructor teaches the class. Grading systems are designed for classes, curriculum design is based on course outlines of record, and one reason that faculty must be consulted on governance issues is because of expertise gleaned from the classroom and how policies play out when the proverbial rubber hits the road. Degree and certificate completion are achieved only after students complete courses; the former does not take place without the latter.

While many will argue that degree and certificate completion are important measures of student success, as is transfer readiness, it’s important to remember the mission of community colleges and how it is different from the mission of CSU or UC. Students who attend universities are seeking degrees. There is little reason to attend a university to take one course or retrain or learn technical skills. Measuring the universities on degree completion makes sense. Because community colleges serve students with various goals and because our mission is more than degree completion, it makes sense to measure us according to the reason that students come to community colleges – to take courses. It makes no difference whether that course is a basic skills, transfer, career technical education, credit, or noncredit course. Because not all colleges are the same – some offer only noncredit, some have more or less transfer students than others, etc. – using course completion levels the playing field for all colleges.

Retention (defined as a student who does not withdraw and earns a grade for the course) has been suggested as a measure of student success. The number of students that remain in a class until the end, whether passing or not, is on the rise and now averages over 80% across the state1. Many people are quick to point out the value and importance of increased retention for students and colleges. However, increased retention can be misleading. When matched against the average rate of successful course completion of 69% for the state1 for the last 20 years, the result is that more students are actually failing courses today than 10 years ago. This is a staggering result given what has happened in community colleges during the last couple of decades and needs attention as a separate discussion. Without attention to increasing course completion, retention is simply a means of counting students who earn any grade in the course and does not equal success. In order to increase student success, colleges should look to increase successful course completion, and retention will follow.

If only one measure were to be used, it should be the one measure where faculty have the greatest influence, and that’s in the classroom. Faculty have means to communicate regularly with students while in the class and can refer students to services to increase student success and invite counselors and librarians into classes to speak about services and instructional support for students. Departments and discipline faculty can monitor academic standards and ensure that grades are not inflated to meet goals of increasing student success. Teachers will continue to be rewarded by the sight of true student success – the hope and transformational behaviors resulting from the educational experience in the classroom.

With all the complexities of community college existence in the 21st century, using one simple and easily understood measure of student success makes sense and is prudent. Using course completion as the single measure puts the energy and attention where it belongs: in the classroom. When the focus is on the classroom, then faculty can maintain standards and rigor for course completion and stay in the driver’s seat regarding any notion of student success. Instead of counting everything under the sun, count what counts.

1Chancellor’s Office DataMart
2Chancellor’s Office DataMart