Why America’s community colleges continue to be important

Why America’s community colleges continue to be important

    As a uniquely American invention, community colleges continue to play a vital role in our nation’s higher education framework. For more than a century, community colleges, which at one time were called “junior colleges,” have served the following 3 essential missions with great success.

    The 3 essential missions of community colleges

    • Students can pursue the first 2 years of a general college education at community colleges; it is for this reason that community colleges are sometimes still referred to as “2-year colleges.” Students that complete that curriculum are awarded an associate’s degree. However, community college students can transfer at any time – with or without completing an associate’s degree – to a 4-year college or university. In addition, an increasing number of community colleges have recently started awarding baccalaureate degrees in selected subjects.
    • Community college offer training for specific skills and jobs. Most often these technical and vocational programs are less than 2 years in length and typically result in the awarding of a certificate, a credential that attests to the satisfactory completion of the program. Not only is vocational education an important opportunity for individuals, it also constitutes a major form of economic development and community revitalization.
    • Community colleges offer a range of noncredit continuing education courses, typically aimed at adults who want to learn a particular workforce-related skill, prepare for a GED, develop English language proficiency, brush up on a subject that interests them, or just learn more about a hobby or personal pastime.

    What are community colleges?

    Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, offer many affordable courses including 2-year associate degree programs that are often used as credit by students seeking to transfer to 4-year degree programs. Community colleges are located throughout the country in urban, exurban, and rural settings, and typically enroll students from the local area.

    Fast facts about community colleges

    • According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are currently more than 1,000 community colleges in the U.S., with more than 90% of them being public institutions.
    • In 2019-20, these colleges awarded over 860,000 associate’s degrees, almost 600,000 certificates, and more than 21,000 baccalaureate degrees.
    • Average annual tuition and fees at a community college are $3,800 compared to $10,740 for in-state students attending a public 4-year college.
    • About 6.2 million students are enrolled in community colleges: 2.2 million full-time, and 4 million on a part-time basis.
    • The economic payoff from earning an associate’s degree is considerable. The median annual salary for a full-time worker with an associate’s degree is about $8,000 more than the average pay for a full-time worker with only a high school diploma.
    • Community college students have very diverse backgrounds. Consider:
      • women make up about 60% of all students
      • among community college attendees, 29% are first-generation-to-college students, 20% are students with a disability, and 15% are single parents.
      • the majority of community colleges students are racial/ethnic minorities; 44% are white
      • average age of a community college students is 27; 44% are 22 years of age or older
      • 62% of full-time community college students are working, as are 72% of part-time students
    • America’s future workforce will need more people with high-quality education credentials
    • Many high schools are failing to prepare students for college courses
    • A considerable number of students do not complete their associate degree program
    • Transferring to a 4-year program remains difficult

    Enrollment declines

    Community colleges are the entry point to higher education for millions of students, and their technical-vocational programs provide the training needed by millions of Americans to improve their career prospects and economic mobility.

    Nonetheless, community colleges are currently facing significant problems, beginning with a prolonged, severe decline in enrollment. While community college enrollments increased in the first decade of the 21st century— hitting a peak of more than 1 million students in 2010— numbers have declined every year since this point. In fact, between 2010 and 2017, enrollments at community colleges fell by 14.4%, equal to a loss of more than 1 million students.

    The COVID19 pandemic has been particularly hard on community colleges, which have seen a greater decline in enrollments than is evident in any other higher education sector. According to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community colleges suffered a loss of 161,800 students between fall, 2020 and fall, 2021. More, community colleges have experienced an overall loss of 706,100 students (-13.2%) since 2019 and the start of the pandemic.

    Those are very steep losses that disproportionately affect working-age adults and students from low-income backgrounds, the very students that community colleges are dedicated to educating.

    Associated with this enrollment loss are at least 4 other major challenges that community colleges need to address if they are to achieve what their students and the communities they serve most need.

    Americans are falling behind in educational attainment goals

    As the U.S. economy becomes more and more based on a workforce that possesses advanced knowledge, technological skills and numerical literacy, the need for well-trained workers has grown steadily. For this reason, many states have developed educational attainment goals for the number of adults who, by 2025 or 2030, will possess the advanced educational credentials necessary to remain competitive in the modern global economy. Community colleges are stepping up to the challenge, integrating baccalaureate programs correlated to local workforce needs for instance.

    » Read: How valuable are community college bachelor programs?

    But by most accounts, the U.S. is not on pace to achieve these attainment goals, leaving it with a large knowledge and skills gap. The number of working-age adults with a college degree or other educational credential of value must be increased, particularly among communities of color and for people from low-income backgrounds if this skills gap is ever to be closed.

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    Too many students are unprepared for college

    Each year at least a million high school graduates and working-age adults lack the academic preparation necessary to successfully complete college coursework. Nationally, over half of the students entering community college will be told by their institutions that they are not ready for college-level math and English courses; that percentage will be significantly higher for Black and Hispanic students.

    Instead of registering for a credit-bearing course, these students will be placed in prerequisite remedial courses, which are non-credit classes intended to help them get up to speed so they can succeed in credit-bearing “gateway” courses and ultimately earn a degree.

    Although remedial courses do not count toward graduation, students have to pay tuition for them, nonetheless. As well-intentioned as they may be, remedial courses are largely unsuccessful. They’re higher education’s Hotel California; millions of students enter but they never leave. Very few students who start in remediation ever complete the associated gateway course. Worse, only 10% of students who start in remediation at 2-year schools finish their degree in 3 years.

    The good news is that there is a solution at hand. It is an alternative called “corequisite support,” which research has shown can triple the percentage of students who successfully complete gateway math courses and significantly increase the percentage who complete gateway English courses.

    Briefly, here’s how corequisite support works. Instead of registering for a remedial course, students enroll in gateway courses immediately. Students are not left to sink or swim, and instead receive various form of essential assistance and support. For example, students may be required to attend a corequisite support course that includes up to 3 contact hours per week and is offered alongside the associated college-level course. The support course is designed specifically to help students master the skills and knowledge required for success in the accompanying college-level course. This is part and parcel of a larger push to provide personalized support to students entering community college, to ensure individual economic, emotional, and academic circumstances do not act as barriers to graduation and success.

    Whether at small, medium, or large colleges; at open access or highly selective schools; community colleges or research universities; the corequisite approach is associated with dramatically improved success rates in passing both English and math gateway courses.

    Completion rates are too low 

    Getting a post-secondary credential is crucial for success in today’s economy. And yet too many community college students fail to earn a degree or credential of value. Consider the following:

    • among degree-seeking community college students, roughly a third earn an associate’s degree or other credential within 3 years
    • about 40% of students who first enroll in public 2-year colleges earn any credential within 6 years
    • only 15% of community college students who intend to transfer on to a 4-year institution actually earn their bachelor’s degree within 6 years

    These numbers are a source of concern for policy makers, community college officials, and the students themselves. While many factors contribute to this disappointing pattern, attention has focused on students’ inadequate academic preparation, the unaffordability of college, misaligned financial aid policies, and the practical difficulties faced specifically by underrepresented minority students and those from low-income backgrounds.

    Transferring from a community college remains too difficult

    Many students who begin their post-secondary education at a community college do so with the thought that they will transfer to a 4-year institution where they can eventually earn a baccalaureate degree.

    But that aspiration often turns into a disheartening reality. When asked about their goals for attending college, more than 75% of community college students list transferring to a 4-year college or university as a goal. However, only 31% of community college students actually do transfer to a 4-year institution. And of those who do, fewer than half will earn a bachelor’s degree within 6 years.

    The majority of community college students wanting to transfer find it to be a much more difficult process than they anticipated. Whether because of institutional obstacles, confusing transfer rules, inadequate advising, insufficient planning, financial problems, or the competing demands of life, the entire transfer process remains far too difficult to navigate – at both sending and receiving institutions. The end result is often more disillusionment, larger debt and uncompleted degrees.


    In the coming weeks, Degree Choices plans to explore each of these issues and feature a series of articles on these and other topics written by community college experts.

    Each article will describe the challenges in more detail, offer workable solutions for policy makers, and practical advice to colleges and students on how to overcome them. The series is intended to help students and families better understand the educational opportunities offered by community colleges and to help them reach decisions about whether a community college is their best higher education option.

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