Part-timers, transfers and returning students aren't counted in official graduation rates. A change by the Department of Education could add them to the mix.
Part-timers, transfers and returning students aren't counted in official graduation rates. A change by the Department of Education could add them to the mix. - 

Kai Ryssdal: College acceptances have been coming in the past couple of weeks, which means now might be a good time to start asking a couple of follow-up questions. Like how big is my financial aid package going to be? Or how successful is a given school at actually producing graduates?

Community colleges have taken a lot of heat on that last one lately, but they may be getting a break. The Department of Education says its going to change the way it measures success.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: The official graduation rate at Community College of Baltimore County is 9 percent.

Scott: And do you feel that that accurately reflects what you’re doing there?

Sandra Kurtinitis: No.

Sandra Kurtinitis is president of the college. She says that rate only counts full-time students going to college for the first time. Not part-time and returning students, or those who transfer to four-year colleges -- one of the big reasons people go to community college.

Kurtinitis: It’s an arcane formula that really has very little relevance to the mission of the community college.

The Department of Education said yesterday it’s looking at counting a broader group of students. Wayne Burton helped advise the department. He’s president of North Shore Community College in Danvers, Mass. Burton says the change could attract more students, and more support from states that often tie funding to graduation rates.

Wayne Burton: We hope that once we’ve shown how valuable we are, then public policy will shift and actually resources will come our way.

For-profit colleges also like the change. At the University of Phoenix online, 5 percent of first-time, full-time students get a bachelor’s in six years. Spokesman Rick Castellano says of all students, 31 percent finish in that time.

Rick Castellano: Still that number needs to improve and we’re committed to doing that. But it’s above and beyond the current Department of Education calculation.

Counting part-time students could backfire at some schools. In a recent report, the group Complete College America found that -- even with more time -- part-time students rarely graduate.

In Baltimore, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports