Community colleges were unfairly tarred by the old method used to gather graduation rates. The new results, produced by including all types of students, suggest that prospective undergraduates may want to consider community colleges when searching for an affordable diploma.

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A college degree is the key to unlocking many of the best careers in the modern labor market. But more than 20 million working-age adults in the United States are college dropouts, failed in some way by institutions that collectively receive hundreds of billions of dollars in public funding every year.

For the last two decades, the Department of Education has tracked graduation rates at colleges. Although a handful of elite colleges have graduation rates above 90 percent, many are below 50 percent — often, far below. But colleges have long complained that the federal rates are inaccurate. Back in 2008, Congress asked the department to study the matter. A committee was formed and in the end recommended that the Education Department calculate graduation rates in a new way.

The new data, released last month, suggests that some community colleges are doing a much better job of preparing students for future success than they’ve gotten credit for. Lawmakers and students may want to take a fresh look at them as an affordable starting point on the road toward a college degree.

The old graduation measures date to the late 1990s, when Sen. Bill Bradley championed legislation requiring colleges to report graduation rates for their basketball and football players — and, while they were at it, everyone else.

The measures were limited to students who enroll in college for the first time and take a full course load. This is a perfectly reasonable way to measure graduation rates at Bradley’s alma mater, Princeton, because nearly all undergraduates there start full time, a few months after finishing high school.

The federal graduation rates also calculated the percentage of students who graduated within six years of enrollment. This made sense for four-year universities, where the vast majority of bachelor’s degrees are earned within six years.

The problem was that the graduation rate rules were then applied to the entire higher education system, including two-year community colleges, where nearly half of all undergraduates begin. The typical community college student isn’t a fresh-faced 18-year-old taking a full slate of courses.

Most community college students are nontraditional — adults, parents, people with full-time jobs, people returning to school after years away. They often enroll part time, taking longer to graduate than the three years the Education Department used to gauge the success of people pursuing two-year degrees. Many community college students also transfer to four-year colleges before finishing a degree — a good result, but one that wasn’t counted for graduation rates.

So, education officials made several changes. They included part-time and returning students in the calculation. They extended the time period to eight years. And they made separate calculations of how many students transferred before graduation and how many were still in college.

The results paint a very different picture of community-college success. The old measures, for example, captured about 620,000 students who began as first-time, full-time freshmen in 2008. Only 20 percent graduated from the community college they started at within three years. North Shore Community College was typical — its old graduation rate was 19 percent.

Such dire numbers became fodder for people defending for-profit colleges from heavy criticism of their high cost and poor outcomes. In 2014, Steve Gunderson, head of the main for-profit college trade association, wrote: “Our institutions have a 63% graduation rate in our two-year programs, while our colleagues at comparable public institutions — community colleges — have a graduation rate of 20%.”

The new graduation rates, by contrast, captured more than 1.5 million community college students. Even though that group included more than 710,000 part-time students, who are often less likely to graduate, extending the time frame to eight years increased the average graduation rate to 27 percent.

But transfers are where community colleges really shine. Some 510,000 students transferred before graduating, bringing the combined graduation and transfer rate up to 60 percent.

Including all of the part-time and returning students and looking over eight years boosted North Shore’s graduation rate to 35 percent. Another 19 percent transferred before graduation. Others were still working toward a degree. All told, more than half of North Shore’s students had a successful outcome — not, as the old rates suggested, fewer than 1 in 5.

The for-profit picture is not so rosy. The two-year programs Gunderson chose for comparison make up less than one-fifth of all for-profit enrollment. Four-year programs at for-profits have much lower graduation rates than those of comparable public institutions. Combined, they had a 34 percent graduation rate under the old measures. And in contrast with community colleges, the new measures make for-profits look worse, dropping their average graduation rate to 32 percent.

For-profit students seldom bring their credits elsewhere. Including transfer students increases the average for-profit success rate to just 39 percent, compared with 60 percent at community colleges.

In other words, Gunderson had it backward. The new measures suggest that community colleges are much more successful than for-profit colleges, not much less. They are also far cheaper and leave the average student with much less debt.