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How Do You Define College and Career Success?

The debate rages on: How do we define and subsequently measure college and career success? Ask 10 different people and you get 10 different answers: SAT and ACT scores, high school graduation rates, postsecondary attendance rates. Postsecondary completion is one measure of student success nearly everyone can agree on. This is elusive data at best, but the College and Career Program of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana and the Community Education Coalition in Columbus, Indiana, set out in search of this information in order to better understand how to help young people be prepared for college and career success.

Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana was established in 1963. With 34 campuses statewide, it is Indiana’s third largest public education system. The college is an open-access, two-year postsecondary institution offering courses, degree programs, and certification training and testing. Ivy Tech also offers customized training opportunities and continuing education in response to the specific needs of local businesses. The Community Education Coalition (CEC) is a six-county regional partnership of education, business, and community leaders, established in 1997 to bring leadership and resources together to improve the community learning system and respond to the area’s workforce, employer, and economic development needs. The College and Career Program, part of the College and Career Exploration Center, exists to help learners develop informed and attainable plans for success in higher education and careers. The Exploration Center works to help bridge the secondary-postsecondary gap; provide maximum access for all, including first-generation college students and other underserved populations; and support individuals in realizing their fullest potential for success, improving the quality of their lives, and contributing to the economic viability of their families and the community.

Over time, regional partners have amassed foundational pieces that develop a local education research base used to advise the learning system. This has enabled the community to make sound decisions grounded in real-time quantitative and qualitative data reflective of the region. This minimizes the dependence on state and national data that may or may not be representative of the community. One example is the longitudinal data on graduates one year after leaving high school. Postsecondary attendance rates of these graduates are higher than is typical across Indiana or the nation. Data collected from this population regarding high-frequency majors has helped provide justification to introduce and expand degree programs at the three local higher education campuses: Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Purdue University College of Technology at Columbus-Southeast Indiana, and Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.

When the College and Career Program, funded by Ivy Tech Community College and CEC, was established in 2002, it became clear there was a need for additional information on graduates beyond one year following high school. From a local standpoint, there was a desire to understand more about the experiences, challenges, and successes of individuals after leaving the secondary systems. Partners believed this information was critical to facilitate smooth transitions and position young people for success in higher education and careers. The decision was made to survey 1998 graduates of the three Bartholomew County high schools, Columbus East, Columbus North, and Hauser. Six years was the time length selected because of the abundance of state and national data available six years following high school.

To maximize lessons learned from this investment, the project was designed to collect information of value for various stakeholder groups, including K-12, higher education, economic development, and current and potential grant makers. Partners were involved in constructing the survey instrument. Some strands from the local one-year follow-up studies were replicated. Components from a Pennsylvania State University customer-supplier study were used. Attention was given to assessing the brain-drain impact on the region. There was motivation to gather demographic data, but also to collect information to give insight into how we, as a learning system, might help students prepare for educational and career success. Additionally, how can we best support individuals along their educational and career pathways?

Using the last known home address and phone number, we contacted graduates by mail and telephone between November 2003 and June 2004. Parent volunteers made telephone contact. Some graduates responded to the survey through a website link developed by CEC. Several graduates of Columbus North responded to the survey at their class reunion. Of the 646 graduates, a representative sample of 294 (45.5 percent) responded to the survey.

Findings of the report indicate that 82.7 percent of the 1998 graduates responding to the survey attended a postsecondary institution. Of these, 79.4 percent completed their degree or certification program in six years or less. More than 81 percent of respondents who attended a postsecondary institution completed a baccalaureate degree. This compares with a six-year completion rate of 54.2 percent in Indiana and a 63 percent completion rate nationally. Using the Carl D. Perkins Act definition of completion (completion of an advanced training program or postsecondary education program of study), more than 73 percent of the 1998 Bartholomew County high school graduates who attended a two-year or technical school completed their program of study. This compares with 23 percent in Indiana and 34.3 percent nationally for students who receive a two-year associate degree during the same time frame. The report identifies other points of interest:

  • 82.4 percent completed degrees at Indiana schools, 31.8 percent at Indiana University-Bloomington.
  • Business and Education were the most popular four-year majors.
  • Health care-related careers were the most popular two-year and technical school programs of study.
  • 28.4 percent of the four-year graduates live and work in the region.*
  • 67.1 percent of the four-year graduates live and work in Indiana, compared with 57.8 percent of four-year graduates who remain in Indiana and with 73.1 percent of four-year graduates nationally who remain in their original state of residency.
  • 68.4 percent of the two-year and technical school graduates live and work in the region.*
  • 52.9 percent of the four-year graduates are employed in their major field of study.
  • 63.2 percent of the two-year and technical school graduates are employed in their major field of study.
  • 60 percent of the four-year completers were female; 40 percent were male.
  • The reason most frequently cited for not completing a postsecondary program of study was the lack of career focus, identification, or orientation.

* The region was defined as Bartholomew and the four surrounding counties.

Another purpose of the study was to assess the graduates’ satisfaction with their academic preparation, high school instructional practices, and support systems, and to elicit their perception about how well prepared they felt for higher education and careers. Respondents were asked to rate satisfaction using a five-point Likert scale, with five being the highest.


Respondents felt generally satisfied with their academic preparation.



Respondents were largely satisfied with teaching practices at their former high schools.


Satisfaction with school support structures had the lowest grand mean (3.62).


When asked to compare their level of preparation leaving high school with that of their peers at college or in the workplace, respondents rated their high school at 3.97. They felt positive about the school climate and had an overall sense of well-being while in their high school. Respondents indicated the most difficult transitional issues for them were adjusting to adult roles and responsibilities, the work load and expectations of higher education and careers, and time management required with more personal independence.

The primary goal for this study was to collect picturing data to establish a postsecondary completion baseline for the region. That said, one can make several inferences from the findings. In both the one-year and six-year follow-up studies of the 1998 class, postsecondary attendance rates were higher than typical. Further, one-year follow-up studies conducted over more than a decade have consistently shown high postsecondary attendance rates. This would suggest there are cultural expectations in the region that young people continue their education beyond high school.

In this study, postsecondary completion rates six years following high school were higher than typical across Indiana and the nation. Approximately 70 percent of the 1998 graduates (80 percent of the respondents) completed a rigorous high school curriculum earning a Core 40 or Academic Honors diploma. These young people completed courses above and beyond the minimum high school graduation requirements of the state of Indiana at that time. These findings are consistent with those of the American Diploma Project report, Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. for Achieve, Inc., 2005) that found students who take more rigorous courses in high school are better prepared to be successful in college-level coursework.

A secondary goal of this study was to assess academic, personal, and career readiness. One of the two school corporations (districts) involved in the study had a hunch that students needed more library research and public speaking experience. To address these perceived deficits, one high school introduced Sr. Projects during 2000-2001. The Sr. Project is a culminating project combining a persuasive research paper and a project involving a community mentorship, and ending in a presentation of the paper and project before a review board. Findings of this study support this decision for curriculum changes. The 1998 graduates indeed indicated they felt their library research and oral presentation skills were marginal. It is suggested a similar study be repeated to survey the 2001 class six years following graduation. Doing so would help to determine whether these curricular changes effectively addressed the library research and oral presentation and speech deficiencies.

The study further examined career readiness. The principle reason cited by respondents who did not complete a program of study was lack of career focus. Respondents also expressed lower satisfaction with the amount of college and career information available to them while in high school. They wished they had more human interaction to help process the college and career information they did receive. The findings collected through this research have influenced the design of the College and Career Exploration Center. The Exploration Center expects to expand outreach programming to support secondary partners in providing more information for current students and families. Additionally, onsite services will be available for all learners, including alumni, seeking tools and support in developing or revising educational and career plans.


For more information, contact
Marsha Van Nahmen, Director of College and Career Programs
Columbus Learning Center
(812) 314-8531

The Executive Summary of this report is available on the College and Career Exploration Center website atwww.ccexploration.org.


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