Research in Higher Education

, Volume 54, Issue 7, pp 805–824 | Cite as

Success in Community College: Do Institutions Differ?

  • Charles T. Clotfelter
  • Helen F. Ladd
  • Clara G. Muschkin
  • Jacob L. Vigdor


Community colleges are complex organizations and assessing their performance, though important, is difficult. Compared to 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges serve a more diverse population and provide a wider variety of educational programs that include continuing education and technical training for adults, and diplomas, associates degrees, and transfer credits for recent high school graduates. Focusing solely on the latter programs of North Carolina’s community colleges, we measure the success of each college along two dimensions: attainment of an applied diploma or degree; or completion of the coursework required to transfer to a 4-year college or university. We address three questions. First, how much variation is there across the institutions in these measures of student success? Second, how do these measures of success differ across institutions after we adjust for the characteristics of the enrolled students? Third, how do our measures compare to the measures of success used by the North Carolina Community College System? Although we find variation along both dimensions of success, we also find that part of this variation is attributable to differences in the kinds of students who attend various colleges. Once we correct for such differences, we find that it is not possible to distinguish most of the system’s colleges from one another along either dimension. Top-performing institutions, however, can be distinguished from the most poorly performing ones. Finally, our adjusted rates of success show little correlation either to measurable aspects of the various colleges or to the metrics used by the state.


Community colleges Institutional measures Performance metrics Student success 



We are grateful to the Smith Richardson Foundation for supporting this research, to the North Carolina Education Research Data Center and North Carolina Community College System for providing access to administrative records, to Jeff Smith for helpful comments, and to D. J. Cratty, Katherine Duch, Megan Reynolds and Eugene Wang for statistical and research assistance


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles T. Clotfelter
    • 2
  • Helen F. Ladd
    • 2
  • Clara G. Muschkin
    • 1
  • Jacob L. Vigdor
    • 3
  1. 1.Sanford School of Public PolicyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Sanford School of Public PolicyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Sanford School of Public PolicyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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