As the lowest-cost alternative for higher education, community colleges are a top choice for many students who want to earn a two-year degree or move on to a four-year college to continue their education.
But ever since graduation rates began to be tracked in the 1990s, results have consistently shown that the rates are much lower for community colleges than for other postsecondary institutions.
In general, the research shows that just over half of all college students in the United States graduate with a degree. But at community colleges nationally, only one-third of all students complete a degree or certificate within six years.
Drill down further into particular demographic groups or institutions, and the numbers are even worse. For example, at some urban community colleges, the completion rate drops into the teens.
There are many factors that contribute to lower graduation rates among community college students, from the resources available at the school to the needs of the students who enroll.
Community colleges are open to anyone who wants to attend, and many of their students have more intensive academic needs than students at selective schools. Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, told U.S. News & World Report that he believes community colleges need to address this challenge by improving their systems to evaluate incoming students so they can be placed in the right remedial classes.
If they are placed in remedial courses to prepare them for college-level work, they must successfully complete these courses before enrolling in their associate’s program. While many students get over this hurdle, it can be especially challenging for students who didn’t receive an adequate high school education. If students are also working or raising children, the demands keep growing.
Additionally, many students get inadequate guidance counseling at community colleges, where the average student to advisor ratio can be a thousand to one. Factor in the inexperience of first-time college-goers or students from low income communities, and the pitfalls become clear. Without significant counseling provided by the colleges, students are often left to their own devices to sort out which courses to take, when to schedule them, and how to manage their financial aid packages.
There are colleges that are trying to address their low completion rates with innovative solutions. For example, Hudson Valley Community College in New York tries to boost graduation rates by offering more comprehensive support to their students, such as free childcare, transportation and tutors. These programs enable students to focus on their academic progress so they can complete their degrees.
The City University of New York (CUNY), the nation’s largest public university system, has created an intensive program called the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) to overcome many of the obstacles that keep low income students from achieving an associate degree. The program, begun in 2007 and recently expanded, provides students who enter college needing one or more remedial courses with intensive academic, advising, and life skills supports to boost their graduation rates. The program has shown promising results in studies by CUNY and the MDRC.
Graduation rates tend to only count traditional students who start college directly after high school, and stay in the same college full-time until they graduate.
Community colleges point out that the research doesn’t track a large portion of their students. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly half of all college students who registered in the fall of 2009 didn’t fit the “traditional student" definition. Non-traditional students include part-time students, students who took a year or more off from school before starting college, and students who transfer colleges.
Community college administrators argue that if every one of their students were counted and tracked, the graduation rate would be closer to 40%.
Community colleges are the least expensive option for higher education. If you’re considering saving money by attending community college, you should be aware that research generally points to a lower graduation rate for community college students. That being said, there are colleges that are trying to more effectively address the needs of their students so that a college degree is within reach.
Koebler, J. (2012, April 21). Report: Community College Attendance Up, But Graduation Rates Remain Low. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from U.S. News & World Report
Lipka, S. (2010, March 2). Students Who Don't Count. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education
Marcus, J. (2013, August 6). New figures suggest community college grad rates higher than thought. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from The Hechinger Report
Waldman, S. (2013, June 11). Community colleges produce few graduates. Times Union. Retrieved from Times Union