The most authoritative recent analysis of community college year-round enrollment (as opposed to fall enrollment only) is from 2012–2013. The analysis indicates that in 2012–2013, 10.1 million undergraduates were enrolled in public two-year colleges (NCES, Digest of Education Statistics 2014, Table 308.10).
In fall 2015, nearly 6.3 million students were enrolled in public, two-year colleges. About 2.3 million were full-time students and nearly 4 million were part-time. About 6.9 million students were enrolled in all two-year and less-than-two-year colleges, public and private, down from 7.2 million in fall 2014 (NCES, Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2015 and Fall 2014).
In fall 2015, 38 percent of undergraduate students attended public and private two-year colleges. Of full-time undergraduates, 24 percent attended community colleges (NCES, Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2015).
Among all students who completed a degree at a four-year college in 2013–14, 46 percent had enrolled at a two-year college in the previous 10 years. Of those, more than one fifth were enrolled for only one term, but 47 percent had been enrolled for five or more terms (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015).
An analysis of Education Longitudinal Study (ELS: 2002-06) data shows that 44 percent of low-income students (those with family incomes of less than $25,000 per year) attend community colleges as their first college after high school. In contrast, only 15 percent of high-income students enroll in community colleges initially. Similarly, 38 percent of students whose parents did not graduate from college choose community colleges as their first institution, compared with 20 percent of students whose parents graduated from college.
The same analysis found that 50 percent of Hispanic students start at a community college, along with 31 percent of African American students. In comparison, 28 percent of white students begin at community colleges.
In Fall 2014, 56 percent of Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, while 44 percent of black students and 39 percent of white students were at community colleges. The overall number was 42 percent. (College Board, Trends in Community Colleges, 2016)
According to a nationally representative survey of first-time college students in 2003–04, among first-time college students with family incomes of $32,000 or less, 57 percent started at a two-year or less-than-two-year college rather than at a four-year institution (Berkner & Choy, 2008).
The National Center for Education Statistics collects information on family income for independent community college students and students dependent on their parents. The table below shows the percentage of students overall, dependent students, and independent students who fall into each income category (NPSAS 2011-12).
|Less than $20,000||36%||19%||48%|
|$50,000 and up||33%||52%||21%|
Approximately 1 percent of associate-degree enrollees and 6 percent of certificate enrollees at community colleges do not have any high school credential (diploma or GED). Nineteen percent of certificate enrollees have a GED or other equivalency instead of a high school diploma, as do about 10 percent of associate-degree enrollees and 2 percent of enrollees at four-year institutions (Judith Scott-Clayton, CCRC Senior Research Associate, personal communication based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics Beginning Postsecondary Students: 2009 study, computation by NCES QuickStats).
National data on term-to-term persistence are scant, but two CCRC studies of community college students in Virginia and Washington found that a quarter of students who enroll in the fall semester do not return in the spring. Of those who do enroll in the spring, one fifth do not return for the subsequent fall semester (Jaggars & Xu, 2010; Jaggars & Xu, 2011).
Of first-time college students who enrolled in a community college in the fall of 2009, 38.1 percent earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Shapiro & Dundar, 2015).
15.1 percent of students who started at community colleges in 2009 completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years. 59.6 percent of these bachelor's degree earners (or 9 percent of the total cohort) did not obtain a two-year degree before transferring (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Shapiro & Dundar, 2015).
Because the graduation rate used for federal accountability purposes only includes completions that occur at the starting institution, they do not account for this type of outcome. Community colleges therefore do not receive credit for many students who go on to complete a four-year degree (Shapiro et al., 2012).
The most recent national data indicate that 14 percent of dependent students with family income in the lowest income quartile (less than $30,000) who started at a public two-year college in 2003–04 completed an associate degree by 2009. An additional 6 percent earned a certificate, and 13 percent earned a bachelor's degree.
Among students in the second lowest income quartile ($30,000–$64,999) who started at a public two-year college in 2003–04, 18 percent completed an associate degree by 2009. An additional 7 percent earned a certificate, and 16 percent earned a bachelor's degree (College Board, Trends in Community Colleges, April 2016).
Federal BPS (Beginning Postsecondary Students) data from 2009 indicate that 68 percent of students beginning at public two-year colleges in 2003–2004 took one or more remedial courses in the six years after their initial college enrollment. At four-year public colleges, it was 40 percent (Chen & Simone, 2016).
At public two-year colleges, 48 percent of students who began in 2003-04 took two or more remedial courses within six years. At public four-year colleges, 21 percent of students took two or more remedial courses (Chen & Simone, 2016).
Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, the percentage of students beginning at public two-year colleges who took a remedial course in their first year increased from about 30 percent to almost 35 percent. That followed an increase between 1995–96 and 2003–04 from about 25 percent to 30 percent (NCES QuickStats).
A CCRC study of more than 250,000 students at 57 community colleges in the Achieving the Dream initiative found that 59 percent of entering students were referred to developmental math and 33 percent were referred to developmental reading (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010).
Another study using national data found that 58 percent of recent high school graduates who entered community colleges took at least one developmental course. Only about one quarter of these students (28 percent) went on to earn any degree or certificate within 8.5 years (Attewell, Lavin, Domina, & Levey, 2006).
At public two-year colleges, 78 percent of Black students, 75 percent of Hispanic students, and 64 percent of White students take remedial courses. Of students in the lowest income group, 76 percent take remedial courses, compared with 59 percent in the highest income group (Chen & Simone, 2016).
At public four-year colleges, 66 percent of Black students, 53 percent of Hispanic students, and 36 percent of White students take remedial courses. Of students in the lowest income group, 52 percent take remedial courses, compared with 33 percent in the highest income group (Chen & Simone, 2016).
A number of recent studies on remediation have found mixed or negative results for students who enroll in remedial courses. Bettinger and Long (2005, 2009) found positive effects of math remediation for younger students. Calcagno and Long (2008) and Martorell and McFarlin (2009), however, used a broader sample of students and found no impact on most outcomes (including degree completion), with small mixed positive and negative effects on other outcomes (for an overview, see Jaggars & Stacey, 2014).
Based on the 2011 National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, CCRC researchers estimate the annual cost of college-level remediation at community colleges to be nearly $4 billion (Scott-Clayton & Rodriguez, 2012) and the annual cost of remediation at all colleges to be nearly $7 billion (Scott-Clayton, Crosta, & Belfield, 2012).
A CCRC study of 57 community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative found that only 33 percent of students referred to developmental math and 46 percent of students referred to developmental reading go on to complete the entire developmental sequence (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010).
Developmental completion rates vary according to remedial level. Only 17 percent of students referred to the lowest level of developmental math complete the sequence; 45 percent of those referred to the highest level complete the sequence (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010).
A CCRC study of 250,000 community college students found that only 20 percent of students referred to developmental math and 37 percent of students referred to developmental reading go on to pass the relevant entry-level or "gatekeeper" college course (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010).
CCRC researchers found that students who ignored a remedial placement and enrolled directly in a college-level course had slightly lower success rates than those who placed directly into college-level courses but substantially higher success rates than those who complied with their remedial placement. This may be because relatively few students who entered remediation ever went on to attempt the college-level course (Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010).
CCRC’s study of a statewide community college system found that about half of developmental English students and one third of developmental math students enroll in gatekeeper courses. Among college-ready students, around four fifths enroll in gatekeeper writing and reading, and three fourths enroll in gatekeeper math.
Once enrolled, the pass rates for college-ready and developmental students—regardless of their remedial level, or whether they took or skipped their remedial requirements—are very similar, hovering around 75 percent. Nevertheless, because overall gatekeeper enrollment rates are low (62 percent for English and 36 percent for math), less than half of all students in the college system pass gatekeeper English, and just over a quarter pass gatekeeper algebra (Jenkins, Jaggars, & Roksa, 2009).
A 2006 study using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) found that among students who take at least one remedial course, 28 percent go on to complete a college credential within 8.5 years (Attewell, Lavin, Domina, & Levey, 2006).
Ninety-two percent of two-year institutions use scores on assessment tests for placement into remedial education (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011).
Two college placement exams dominate the market. The ACCUPLACER, developed by the College Board, is used at 62 percent of community colleges, and the COMPASS, developed by ACT, Inc., is used at 46 percent (Primary Research Group, 2008). Some colleges use both ACCUPLACER and COMPASS exams (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011).
ACT announced in 2015 that it is phasing out the COMPASS exam. (Inside Higher Ed, June 18, 2015)
One CCRC study of a statewide community college system found that the ACCUPLACER severely misplaces 33 percent of entering community college students. In other words, based on their ACCUPLACER scores, one third of entering students were either "overplaced" in college-level courses and failed or "underplaced" in remedial courses when they could have gotten a B or better in a college-level course. Using students' high school GPA instead of placement testing to make placement decisions was predicted to cut severe placement error rates in half (to 17 percent) (Belfield & Crosta, 2012).
The same study found that the COMPASS severely misplaces 27 percent of entering community college students. Using students' GPA to make placement decisions could have reduced severe placement error rates by more than half (to 12 percent) (Belfield & Crosta, 2012).
A CCRC study of a large urban system found that the COMPASS severely misplaced 33 percent of entering students into English and 24 percent of entering students into math. More than one third of all tested students who placed into remedial English were severely underplaced, and almost a quarter of all tested students who placed into remedial math were severely underplaced (Scott-Clayton, 2012).
In this system, using high school transcript information instead of test scores was predicted to lower severe placement errors by 10 to 15 percent. Using the best of either placement test scores or high school transcript information was predicted to lower the remediation rate by 8 to 11 percentage points while reducing placement errors and increasing college-level success rates (Scott-Clayton, 2012).
A wide variety of instruments are currently available that assess non-cognitive skills—a group of skills and attributes that, although difficult to define and measure, are widely acknowledged to be essential for student success. The interest in developing and measuring non-cognitive skills has spurred the growth of instruments used to assess students’ competencies in these areas (for more information, see Kafka, 2016).
Accelerated developmental education is an approach that reorganizes developmental education instruction and/or curricula in order to help students complete remediation within a shorter timeframe so they can enroll more quickly in college-level math and English.
Proponents of acceleration believe that it can mitigate two problems that tend to discourage students’ progress through developmental education and into college-level courses: multiple opportunities for exiting the developmental course sequence (which can consist of up to four pre-college courses) and poor alignment with college-level curricula (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2014).
Most acceleration strategies fall into two broad approaches, course restructuring and mainstreaming.
Course restructuring models reorganize instructional time or modify the curriculum to reduce the time necessary to fulfill developmental education requirements. Compressed courses allow students to complete multiple sequential courses in one semester. Curricular redesign involves removing redundant content from the developmental sequence and modifying the remaining curriculum to align more closely with college-level requirements, allowing the removal of one or more developmental courses from the sequence. Modularized approaches accelerate students’ progress by customizing instruction (usually via online learning) so that students can focus on the competencies they need for success in a particular academic pathway.
Mainstreaming models accelerate students’ progress by placing students referred to developmental education directly into college-level courses. Mainstreaming with supplemental support involves placing students with developmental education referrals directly into introductory college-level courses and providing additional instruction through mandatory companion classes, lab sessions, or other learning supports. Basic skills integration is a form of contextualization and involves placing students directly into college-level occupational courses and that integrate relevant basic skills instruction (Edgecombe, 2011; Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2014).
CCRC has studied four different acceleration strategies at four different colleges and college systems across the country. In each analysis, accelerated students were compared to a matched set of students with similar placement exam scores who proceeded through a longer developmental sequence.
In all four studies, accelerated students were significantly more likely to complete college-level math or English within one and three years. Students in accelerated English developmental education accrued more college-level credits within one and three years than students in the traditional sequence. Students in accelerated math developmental education were not more likely to accrue more college-level credits (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2014).
In the most recent national report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 82 percent of high schools reported that students were enrolled in dual enrollment courses, with a total of approximately 2 million enrollments.
Seventy-six percent of high schools reported that students took dual enrollment courses with an academic focus, and 46 percent reported that students took dual enrollment courses with a career or technical-vocational focus (Thomas, Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013).
According the to most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 69 percent of high schools reported enrollments in AP or IB courses, with a total of about 3.5 million enrollments (Thomas, Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013).
There are no national data on the number of students taking just AP courses (as opposed to AP and IB courses), but the number of AP exam-takers increased from 1,339,282 in 2005–06 to 2,611,172 in 2015–16 (College Board, 2016).
According the most recent report from the National Center of Education Statistics, 63 percent of high schools that offer dual enrollment have established requirements that students must meet in order to enroll in dual enrollment courses (Thomas, Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013).
CCRC has conducted studies in Florida, New York City, and California that found that dual enrollment participation is positively related to a range of college outcomes, including college enrollment and persistence, greater credit accumulation, and higher college GPA (Hughes, Karp, & Stacey, 2012).
According to U.S. Department of Education's IPEDs data, 5.5 million students took at least one online course in fall 2013.
The Sloan Consortium reports a larger estimate based on its 2013 survey of online learning. According to the survey, slightly more than 7 million college students took at least one online course in fall 2012. This represents a 6.1 percent increase from fall 2011.
Since 2002, the compound annual growth rate in online course enrollment has been 16.1 percent. For comparison, over the same period, the overall higher education student body has grown at an annual rate of 2.5 percent (Allen & Seaman, 2014).
In fall 2012, the proportion of higher education students taking at least one online course was 33.5 percent. This rate was 32 percent in fall 2011, and slightly less than 10 percent in fall 2003 (Allen & Seaman, 2014).
A CCRC study of Washington State community and technical college students found that completion rates in online courses were 5.5 percentage points lower overall than those in face-to-face courses. Because online courses were more popular among better prepared students, the researchers also compared course completion rates among only those students who had ever enrolled in an online course. Among those students, the completion rate for all online courses was 8.2 percentage points lower than the completion rate for face-to-face courses; completion rates for online English and math courses were lower by 12.8 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively. Further, students who took higher proportions of online courses were slightly less likely to attain a degree or transfer to a four-year college (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2011).
A CCRC study of Virginia Community College System students found that among all courses taken by all students, the online completion rate was 12.7 percentage points lower than the face-to-face completion rate. Among students who had taken at least one online course, online completion rates were 14.7 percentage points lower for all courses, 16.1 percentage points lower for English courses, and 18.7 percentage points lower for math courses. Among this subset of students, the completion rate for online developmental English was 22.3 percentage points lower, and the completion rate for online developmental math was 22.1 percentage points lower (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2010).
A CCRC study found that while all community college students show a decrement in performance in fully online courses, some students show a steeper decline than others, including male students, students with lower prior GPAs, and Black students. The performance gaps that exist among these subgroups in face-to-face courses become more pronounced in fully online courses. For instance, lower performing students (< 3.02 GPA) are 2 percent more likely to drop out of face-to-face courses than higher performaning students (> 3.02 GPA). In online courses, lower performing students are 4 percent more likely to drop out. Black students overall receive a .3 point lower grade than White students in face-to-face courses (2.7 vs. 3.0 GPA). In fully online courses, they receive a .6 point lower grade (2.2 vs. 2.8) (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2013).
In 2016–17, the average published tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally were $3,520, compared with $9,650 at public four-year colleges. The average net price, however, was -$500, meaning that grants and tax benefits covered a portion of other expenses for the average full-time community college student (College Board, 2016).
While sticker prices at community colleges have increased over the past decade (from $2,680 in 2006–07, adjusted to 2016 dollars), net prices at community colleges are lower than 10 years ago. But net prices are up somewhat since 2011-12 (College Board, 2016).
According to the 2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), after accounting for grants (but not tax credits), nearly four in 10 (38 percent) community college students (full- and part-time) pay nothing or receive money back for attending. Nearly three in four (71 percent) pay less than $1,000, and only 9 percent pay more than $2,500 after accounting for grants (NPSAS 2011–12).
Community colleges have the lowest FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application rate of any sector at 61 percent. This rate nevertheless represents an increase of almost 50 percent since 2007–08. Public four-year institutions have the next lowest FAFSA application rate at 72 percent.
As a result of the increase in FAFSA applications, the rate of Pell receipt for community college students has nearly doubled in recent years, from 21 percent in 2007–08 to 38 percent in 2011–12. However, community college students are still leaving Pell Grants on the table: Even though community colleges have a much higher proportion of low-income students than other higher education sectors, their students' rate of Pell receipt is the same as at public four-years, and barely higher than the rate at private nonprofit four-years (NPSAS 2011–2012, NPSAS 2007–08).
One in three community college students have family incomes of less than $20,000, putting them near or below the poverty line. Sixty-nine percent of community college students work while in college, with 33 percent working 35 or more hours per week. Yet only 2 percent of community college students receive any Federal Work Study aid, compared with 25 percent of students at private four-year colleges (NPSAS 2011-2012).
Sampled at a point in time, 37 percent of all community college students have at least some loans, up from 30 percent in 2007–08; those that have any loans have an average of $11,771. However, both the rate of borrowing and the average amount borrowed are far lower than in other sectors. For example, 61 percent of students at public four-year institutions and 85 percent of those at for-profits borrow, with average loans of $18,339 and $19,520, respectively (NPSAS 2011–2012).
Among first-time community college students who enrolled in 2003–04 and were tracked over six years, nearly 60 percent never borrowed, and 75 percent borrowed less than $6,000 (at for-profit two-year colleges, these rates are 8 percent and 24 percent, respectively; at public four-year institutions, they are 39 percent and 50 percent). Only 2 percent of community college students (6 percent of those with federal loans) defaulted on their loans six years after entry, compared with 21 of students at for-profits (23 percent of those with federal loans) (Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study [BPS]:04-09)
Of the 33 percent of community college students who transfer to four-year colleges, 42 percent complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. In other words, 14 percent of the entire cohort of entering community college students earns a bachelor's degree within six years (Jenkins & Fink, 2016).
Bachelor’s completion rates are higher among students who earn an associate degree or certificate before transferring. Among community college students who transfer with an associate degree, 48 percent complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting at a community college, compared with 35 percent of community college students who transfer without an associate degree. One study (Shapiro et al., 2013) tracked students six years after they transferred (up to 10 years total) and found that while 62 percent completed a bachelor’s degree, 72 percent of those who transferred with an associate degree earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with only 56 percent of those who transferred without first having earned an associate degree. A recent CCRC study, however, found that while there was a positive correlation nationally between community colleges' transfer-with-award rates and their transfer-out bachelor's completion rates, this association varied by state and was not significant in most states (Jenkins & Fink, 2016, endnote 17).
Bachelor’s completion varies by type of four-year institution. Of students who transfer to four-year public institutions (73 percent of all transfers), 42 percent complete a bachelor’s within six years of starting at a community college. Of students who transfer to private nonprofit four-year institutions (19 percent of all transfers), 31 percent complete a bachelor’s within six years. Of students who transfer to private for-profit four-year institutions (9 percent of all transfers), 8 percent complete a bachelor’s within six years . Additionally, among students who transfer to very selective four-year institutions (17 percent of all transfers), 58 percent complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. Of transfers to moderately selective and nonselective four-year institutions (53 percent and 27 percent of all transfers, respectively), 39 percent and 22 percent complete bachelor’s degrees within six years of starting at a community college (Jenkins & Fink, 2016).
Shapiro et al. (2013) found that transfer students who enrolled full-time were significantly more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree six years after transfer (80 percent) than students who switched between full- and part-time enrollment (55 percent) and students who enrolled exclusively part-time (25 percent).
Twenty-nine percent of first-time, degree-seeking community college students who successfully transfer to four-year colleges do so after first earning an associate degree or certificate (Jenkins & Fink, 2016).
On average, community college students earn significantly more over their lifetimes than individuals who do not go to community college. Many studies have shown higher earnings for community college awards (Belfield & Bailey, 2011).
But the exact amount varies. It depends on what subject is studied; if the student transfers to a four-year college; if the labor market is strong; and, most importantly, if the student completes community college.
Based on large-scale studies from six states, the average student who completes an associate degree at a community college will earn $5,400 more each working year than a student who drops out of community college. This estimate adjusts for factors such as the subject studied, college attended, and college GPA (Bailey & Belfield, 2015).
Vocational certificates can serve two functions for community college students: They can increase earnings directly, and they can help students get jobs.
Most research finds that having a certificate is associated with higher earnings; the effect is especially strong for certificates in health fields. In addition, certificates increase the probability that the person is employed and that the job is in an industry related to their skills (Xu & Trimble, 2015).
Tuition and fees at community colleges are approximately $4,000 per year of full-time study (NCES, Digest of Education Statistics 2013, Table 330.10). By comparison, a student who completes an associate degree will earn on average $5,400 more than a dropout each year. This gap appears within eight years of first enrollment (Bailey & Belfield, 2015). So, the earnings gains are large compared to the fees.
Plus, there are many other benefits of attending college besides having higher earnings (Belfield & Bailey, 2011).