Most of the time, college presidents have more weighty responsibilities, but on Monday at noon, Montgomery County Community College's president, Karen A. Stout, will help light candles on a birthday cake specially designed to honor the college's 50th anniversary.

The event - cupcakes available, as well - comes at a time when community colleges are both being touted as a solution to skill gaps in the workforce and criticized for low graduation rates.

Stout, 54, who loves statistics and counts her baseball card collection among her prize possessions, thinks graduation rates don't tell the whole story.

"The idea that data alone can tell the story is what we are facing in higher education, looking at student graduation rates as the sole indicator of whether an institution is successful," said Stout, who has been to the White House twice this year to discuss the role of community colleges.

"But you can't just look at that data point," she said. "You have to look at the lives."

Question: What is your graduation rate?

Answer: Our technical three-year graduation rate (for an associate's degree) is 16 percent, but you have to peel back that number. You have to look at our success rate differently.

Q: For example?

A: Many of our students get a one-year certificate. We have a very strong medical assistant and municipal police academy program. Those students leave with a credential and just about 100 percent of them are employed immediately. They aren't in that graduate rate. But I count them as a success. Many of our students want a bachelor's degree. They take 15 credits, 40 credits, 58 credits and don't lose any credits upon transfer. They get that bachelor's degree [elsewhere], but aren't in [our] success rate, because they didn't get the associate's degree.

Q: What about the jobless returning to school?

A: Many are here because they were downsized. They are coming back for new skills. They are here for a semester. They sit for a national exam. They get their certifications and they have a wage gain. They don't count in that graduation rate.

Q: Given all that, how do you measure success?

A: When you look at the whole continuum of student success, after six years, about 38 percent leave here without some type of credential. That would put our success rate at 62 percent.

Q: Any other key stats?

A: We measure retention, the continuity of a student's experience here from the fall semester to the spring semester. So there's a little data point we look at and worry about.

Q: So, what's the story behind that data?

A: I was talking to students about how important it was to commit to getting their associate's degree. I talked about retention. A student said to me, 'Dr. Stout, retention to me isn't between fall and spring semester. Retention is whether I'm going to be here tomorrow. I have children I have to worry about. If one of them gets sick, I won't be here. I worry about whether I can put gas in my car to get here, because a tank of gas can be the difference between me taking a test that's really important to passing.'

Q: You say you are an introvert. How can you do this job as an introvert?

A: Every day is a struggle. Every day I have to be the extroverted person that a leader needs to be in different situations.


Title: President, Montgomery County Community College, since 2001.

Home: West Chester.

Diplomas: University of Delaware, bachelor's in English, doctorate in educational leadership; University of Baltimore, master's in business administration.

Resume: Formerly CEO of Camden County College's Rohrer campus.

Chair: President's Advisory Board to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teacher's College, Creative MontCo.

Bicycling: "You can't fight the hill. That's when you suffer. But if you lean into the hill, you grow with the hill." EndText


What: Montgomery County Community College, with campuses in Blue Bell, Pottstown.

History: Founded Dec. 8, 1964. A lawsuit delayed opening until 1966, with 428 students in Conshohocken's former high school.

Students: 21,062 for credit, 6,962 non-credit; average age is 25.

Budget: $78.9 million.

Point of Pride: One of 43 schools in the Gateway to College National Network to help high school dropouts. EndText


Community College president Karen Stout's integrity fund.