The Community College of Philadelphia has had "mixed success" educating its students, even though its tuition was far above the median price of similar institutions - and higher than all community colleges in the region, according to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pew found that the school's graduation rate was no better than about average - and in some cases was below its peers. The college also falls short in employee training programs, serves a smaller percentage of city residents than peer schools and has failed to meet some standards set by the agency that accredits colleges and Pennsylvania's Board of Nursing, Pew researchers said in the 56-page report released Wednesday.
But on the positive side, its African American and Asian students graduate at higher rates than their counterparts at peer schools, and the college graduated a record 1,993 students in 2013-14, up from 1,602 in 2007-08, the report found.
Student retention - those who stay enrolled - also was up. And students required to take remedial courses upon matriculating - about 70 percent of the student body - were more likely to finish the courses than at peer schools.
"The college's ambitions for improvement are high, but the school in past years has not undertaken the kind of sweeping changes that some other community colleges have mounted," wrote Thomas Ginsberg, report author.
Pew analyzed data from third-party databases and compared the college to about 200 schools nationwide in three peer groups: those in large cities, those with high percentages of low income and minority students and those with a high concentration of colleges.
Community College President Donald "Guy" Generals, who has run the 34,000-student college for less than a year, called the report "pretty fair and balanced." He acknowledged challenges, which he said the college is addressing.
The college said in April it would offer free tuition to hundreds of recent Philadelphia high school graduates from low income families. It's also hiring more advisers to help students and elevating workforce development programs. The college has created a new position: vice president for workforce and economic innovation.
The college, he said, also will aim to add more international students, a strategy used by other schools to attract higher tuition-paying prospects.
"We recognize that we, as well as most of the colleges in the country, need to do better," Generals said.
The community college in recent years has faced challenges. Two years ago, its board of trustees dumped longtime president Stephen Curtis, who drew criticism as contract negotiations with the faculty union dragged on. And six months before that, in October 2012, Mayor Nutter appointed himself and key aides to the college's trustee board in a move to gain more control.
Each year, the college, which is vital to the city's economic development, enrolls the most incoming freshmen in the city.
"It's in an important position in this city," Ginsberg said, "and it's well positioned to make higher education accessible."
But with financial aid from the state and city waning, the college has become more expensive. Tuition in 2012-13 - the most recent year that comparisons were available - was higher than that of community colleges in two of the nation's most expensive cities, New York and San Francisco, the report noted. For the most recent year, tuition and fees ran $5,550. Generals noted that the school did not raise tuition last year and is not planning on raising it this year.
Meanwhile, the college graduated 17.5 percent of its students within six years, slightly below the average of two similar groups of colleges. Urban colleges graduated 20 percent of their students and colleges with similar numbers of minority and low income students 21 percent, Pew found. Philadelphia community college students who transfer to four-year colleges also proved less likely to finish their bachelor's than those at peer schools.
And 52 percent of students who enrolled in 2007 did not have degrees six years later and were not enrolled elsewhere, the report found, citing data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
The college reaches fewer residents than peer schools, the report found. In 2012-13, it served 2.9 percent of city residents 18 or older; peer schools in competitive markets served 6.1 percent.
The college's success is important to the city's goal of raising the percentage of students with college degrees. Though the city of Philadelphia has improved its percentage of residents with four-year degrees, it's made virtually no progress in the percentage with two-year degrees, and it falls last among the nation's 15 biggest cities in percentage of residents with either an associate's or bachelor's degree, the report noted.
About 30 percent of Philadelphians have degrees, compared to 40 percent on average in the 15 largest cities, the report noted.
In the area of monitoring, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education last year warned the college that its accreditation could be in jeopardy because it has failed to document how it assesses student learning and inform staff and faculty of the results. It was the first such warning for the college, which had passed all other areas. Such warnings are somewhat common, commission spokesman Richard J. Pokrass told Pew, and loss of accreditation rare.
The college, Generals said, has addressed the concern.
The state's nursing board also has notified the school it must increase its percentage of students who pass board exams or lose approval to train them, the report noted.
The report called the college's workforce training arm, Corporate Solutions "faltering." It has attracted fewer clients than in the past and has seen revenue fall steeply. Private employers told Pew that the college lacks "appropriate or convenient programs."
Student and faculty leaders at the college were not surprised by the findings and underscored challenges faced by the college - lack of funding, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the country and a public school system with many struggling students.
"None of that is to say there is nothing we can do about it," said John W. Braxton, immediate past co-president of the faculty union and a biology professor. "It's just not easy to figure out what to do. We're certainly not ignoring the problem."
Jason Mays, past president of the student government association, said a lot of students come to the college unprepared, and the college accepts everyone.
"Do they focus the attention on fixing the gap between 12th grade and (college) or do they put more of their resources in students graduating and transferring," said Mays, 31, who graduated with a business administration degree and now attends Temple.