Taking Credit

The problem with writing a blog, I am learning, is that occasionally someone reads it. Worse, he may even remember what I wrote. And in the worst of all words, he physically confronts me and asks about something I have written.

At a recent party, the host came up to me and said, “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or not. I see that City Colleges has its highest graduation rate in ten years, but in your recent blog post, you argued that graduation rate doesn’t matter.”

Once I overcame the shock that someone actually read the blog, I managed a response of sorts. This post attempts to say what I really meant to say at the party.

My post argument is more nuanced than “graduation rates don’t matter.” What I argued, and continue to believe, is that if we execute on many of our strategies, the numbers measuring success will improve. To give my friend credit, though, I do argue that graduation rates as captured by IPEDS do not by themselves measure student success. I welcome the Department of Education efforts to review measures of success. My friend would argue, if I may take his side, that I can’t have it both ways – celebrating the graduation increase while downplaying its significance.

I do not take credit for the graduation increase. CCC overall reported the fact. My colleagues at other colleges are just as responsible and more so for the good results. I frankly did not expect to see dramatic increases my first year in the job, but I am pleased the trend is going the right way. The credit, to the extent we need to assign credit, results from a number of factors. The two most relevant deservers of credit for those of us who care about and work on Reinvention seem to me to be our students and the Heisenberg Principle.

Werner Heisenberg, considered by some the co-father of quantum mechanics with Niels Bohr, articulated the Uncertainty Principle. With all apologies to our Physical Sciences department co-chairs, Professors Collymore-Chalmers and Wilson, what I took away from my college quantum physics class was that the Uncertainty Principle, generalized beyond physics to general life, means that the very act of measuring something influences the outcome. In my former career, we boiled this down further into the aphorism, “You get what you measure.” 

When the Chancellor articulated that one of the goals of Reinvention was to increase the rate of transfer to four-year institutions after graduation, everyone understood that the old excuses about low graduation rates were not going to hold water. As I passingly mentioned in my earlier post, this goal above the others generated the most debate and discussion.

I believe that by publicly declaring graduation as a measure of success, and by starting to measure it, discuss it, and publicize it, CCC is actually influencing the number. I can’t break it down as elegantly as Dr. Heisenberg, but the very act of publicizing graduation rates makes every stakeholder aware that graduation matters. This leads to increased attention, and I argue, increased activity that leads to higher graduation.

As an example, at our career fair in the fall, I talked to one student who had 54 credits, within two or three classes of graduating. I asked her if she was excited about graduation. She replied, “I am not sure I am going to graduate. I am transferring to a four-year, and I don’t know that the Associate Degree by itself adds a lot of value to my resume.” I launched into two arguments. First, I told her, employers do see value in the AA (see Reinvention Chapter One, page 12). It shows you have the ability to complete. Employers also value the credential showing additional schooling Trying telling an employer that “I took a bunch of classes at HWC, and could have gotten my degree, but didn’t think it mattered.” As an employer, what I would hear is, “I have trouble completing things.” My second line told her that sometimes, life gets in the way, and that while I wished her every success in pursuing her bachelors degree, if her path is delayed, having the AA on her resume provides a great backstop until she obtains her BA.

By measuring and publicizing graduation, we are influencing the mindsets of faculty and staff who advise and in turn influence the thinking of students themselves. If I had used the argument many used with me, that transfer is a measure of success and graduation doesn’t matter, I would not have exhorted the student to graduate. We are changing from “graduation doesn’t measure success,” to “Get your degree, and then new worlds will open up to you.” I believe that students are hearing these messages and responding.

Which leads to my second deserver of credit, the students themselves. 800 more students this year did the work necessary to graduate compared to last year. Almost 3,300 students have obtained CCC degrees. This Saturday, 242 HWC students have elected to walk at graduation, joining over 1,900 of their CCC colleagues.

Our students’ achievement matters. They have demonstrated their ability to complete. They have obtained credentials of value. They are signaling to the world that they care enough to start something and see it through to successful completion. I am so proud of our graduates this year, and look forward to increasing numbers of students joining them in the future. Graduation rate does not tell the whole story about our students, but their degrees are a powerful symbol of their hard work and determination. This Saturday, thousands will be on hand to honor them and cheer their accomplishments. Congratulations, graduates. You deserve the credit. May your CCC degree be another milestone in your path to success.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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