Productivity and efficiency in community colleges : the use of cost-effectiveness analysis to increase student success




Stewart, Judith Lynn

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This two-part qualitative study explored the use of cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) in community colleges. CEA is a cost analysis tool that compares alternative programs, designed for the same outcome, in terms of both costs and effects, ranking programs by cost-effectiveness and providing more information to decision makers than cost data or effectiveness data alone. CEA indicates which program provides the greatest benefit at the lowest cost, or the greatest return in student outcomes for a fixed investment. The purpose of the study was to determine if CEA methodology could be used by individual colleges and how CEA might fit into their decision-making process. The literature review revealed few CEA studies of community college programs; the only published studies were conducted by external researchers, and no studies identified how CEA methodology could be adapted for institutional use. Part One investigated what is required for CEA to be implemented by individual colleges, challenges that might arise, and potential solutions. Unstructured and semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven participants who had expertise in CEA, institutional research, and data analytics. Results of Part One revealed that CEA can be adapted for institutional use, and identified the requisite competencies and resources. Part Two used a grounded theory approach to explore how college leaders work to increase student success. Findings from twenty-six unstructured interviews with community college executive leaders facilitated proposal of a substantive grounded theory describing how leaders align campus culture, programs, and processes to a student success mission. Findings also suggested leadership interest in CEA, and a niche for CEA within the theory. CEA is seldom utilized in higher education. Community colleges focus on the use of program effectiveness data to improve student outcomes, overlooking the strategic use of program cost data to increase student success. The findings of this study indicate that CEA methodology can be adapted for use by individual community colleges, and identify a role for CEA in decision making. This study also provides an introductory guide for colleges interested in using CEA.


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