This week, Carolina Journal published an opinion piece written by Shannon Watkins from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. The piece centered around community college ‘noncompleters;’ that is, students who attend a community college but never receive a degree or transfer to a four-year university. According to Watkins:

Reports of declining community college graduation rates and the lack of skilled workers have led policymakers and college leaders to sound the alarm and vow to do whatever it takes to lower the high rate of “dropouts” and equip students to meet the labor demands of an evolving economy. 

But not everyone who enters a community college is there with the purpose of getting a degree or transferring. Watkins writes:

People attend community colleges for a wide number of reasons: to explore their interests, to figure out whether college is for them, to earn credits toward a four-year degree, to earn a work force credential, or simply to gain new, specific skills.

One population in particular that policymakers and college leaders are overlooking is “skill builders” or “upskillers.” According to Watkins, these are “students who want to take a few courses, but who don’t intend to earn a credential or transfer… [they] only take the few specific courses they need to gain new skills for employment or to advance in their careers”

These students are not encompassed in North Carolina’s metrics of success for a community college student, rather, they are labeled as “dropouts” because they never completed a credential. However, Watkins writes, many of them are successes, especially in the workplace:

Instead of solely measuring student success based on credential attainment, [University of Michigan professor Peter Riley Bahr] argues that job earnings and employment retention are also valuable measures. Far from being mere dropouts or a deadweight to society, Bahr found that skills builders in certain fields experienced notable financial gains or “returns” for the college credits they earned.

For example, students who took six college credits in public and protective services increased their annual earnings by $1,952; six credits in engineering and industrial technologies resulted in an annual wage increase of $1,600; for business and management students, $808; and for information technology courses, $524.

…That means that, according to Bahr’s findings, nearly 17% of students who might be considered “failures” were found to be “highly successful” in the work force.

When decision-makers fail to acknowledge this group of people, it causes multiple issues. Watkins explains:

First, it distracts — or blinds — officials to the real needs of students and how colleges can best serve them. Second, it feeds into the completion crisis narrative that contributes to policymakers’ excessive focus on credential attainment. That excessive focus on credential attainment hurts the employment prospects of skills builders who, despite being competent workers, might appear “less qualified” on paper.

For this reason, Watkins says:

Policymakers should discard their narrow — and superficial — view of community colleges’ mission.

Read the full piece here. Watch JLF’s John Hood speak about community college on NC SPIN! here, and read his opinion piece on the value they offer here.