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Community College FAQs

Community College Enrollment and Completion

How many undergraduate students are enrolled in community colleges?

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).

According to AACC, in fall 2013, approximately 7.4 million undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges (defined as regionally accredited and primarily associate degree–granting). Approximately 2.9 million students were enrolled full-time, and approximately 4.5 million students were enrolled part-time. AACC estimates that an additional 5 million noncredit students were enrolled in community colleges in fall 2013 (AACC, 2015 [analysis of IPEDS Fall 2013 Enrollment Survey data]).

What percentage of low-income, minority, and first-time college students attend community colleges?

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.

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).

How does the population of community college students break down by income?

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).

Income Overall Dependent Independent
Less than $20,000 36% 19% 48%
$20,000–29,999 14% 11% 15%
$30,000–49,999 17% 18% 16%
$50,000 and up 33% 52% 21%

Do all community college students have a high school diploma or its equivalent?

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).

What is the rate of student persistence at community colleges?

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).

What percentage of community college students obtain a college credential?

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).

What are the community college completion rates for low-income students?

The most recent national data indicate that 13 percent of students in the lowest income quartile who started at a two-year college in 2003–04 completed an associate degree by spring 2009. An additional 9.4 percent earned a certificate, and 8.3 percent earned a bachelor's degree.

Among students in the second lowest income quartile who started at a two-year college in 2003–04, 15.8 percent completed an associate degree by spring 2009. An additional 10.5 percent earned a certificate, and 10.8 percent earned a bachelor's degree.

These percentages include students who attended for-profit colleges, but community college students make up the preponderance of the cohort. Completion rates at for-profit colleges for associate degrees and certificates are likely to be slightly higher (National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013).

Developmental Education in the Community College

How many community college students are referred to and enroll in remediation?

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 entry. Between 1995–96 and 2003–04, the percentage taking a remedial course in their first year increased from about 25 percent to 30 percent (Judith Scott-Clayton, CCRC Senior Research Associate, personal communication, from NCES QuickStats).

A CCRC study of over 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).

Do developmental education courses help students succeed in college?

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).

What are the costs of providing remedial education?

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).

How many community college students complete their remedial requirements?

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).

How many students referred to developmental education go on to complete "gatekeeper" math and English (entry-level college courses required for graduation)?

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).

What are the success rates for students who are referred to remediation but skip it and enroll directly in college-level courses?

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).

How do enrollment and pass rates in gatekeeper courses compare between college-ready and developmental students?

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).

How many students who take developmental education courses go on to complete a college degree?

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).

Developmental Education Placement Exams

How many two-year colleges use placement exams to determine whether students need remediation?

Ninety-two percent of two-year institutions use scores on assessment tests for placement into remedial education (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011).

What are the most commonly used placement exams?

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).

What do we know about how well placement exam scores reflect students' college readiness?

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).

What tools exist to assess students' non-cognitive skills?

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 Approaches to Developmental Education

What is accelerated developmental education?

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).

Do accelerated approaches to developmental education improve student success?

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).

Dual Enrollment and Dual-Credit Programs

How many high school students participate in dual enrollment?

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).

How many students take Advanced Placement classes?

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 1,221,016 in 2004–05 to 2,483,452 in 2014–15 (College Board, 2015).

Do students need to meet minimal requirements to enroll in dual enrollment courses?

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).

What evidence exists that supports the efficacy of dual enrollment in increasing college success?

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).

Online Education

How many college students take online courses?

According to U.S. Department of Education's IPEDs data, 5.5 million students took at least one online course in 2012. 

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). 

What do we know about community college student performance in fully online courses?

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).

Do some students perform better than others in fully online courses?

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).

Community College Costs and Financial Aid

What is the cost of community college tuition and fees?

In 2015–16, the average tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally were $3,435, compared with $9,410 at public four-year colleges. The average net price, however (taking into account grants and education tax benefits), was -$770, meaning that grants and tax credits and deductions covered a portion of other expenses for the average full-time community college student (College Board, 2015).

While sticker prices at community colleges have increased over the past decade (from $2,670 in 2005–06, adjusted to 2015 dollars), net prices at community colleges have actually fallen over this period due to increases in Pell Grants and education tax credits and deductions (College Board, 2015).

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).

How many community college students receive Pell Grants?

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 2011–2012NPSAS 2007–08).

How many community college students work while in college and how many receive Federal Work Study aid?

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).

How much debt do community college students accumulate?

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)

Transfer to Four-Year Colleges

How many entering community college students transfer to a four-year college within six years?

While 81 percent of entering community college students indicate they want to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, only 33 percent of entering students actually transfer to a four-year institution within six years (Horn & Skomsvold, 2011; Jenkins & Fink, 2016).

How many college students who transfer to four-year colleges complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting at a community college?

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).

How many community college students who transfer to a four-year college first earn an associate degree or certificate?

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).

Economic Returns to Community College

Do students who complete community college earn more than students who don't?

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).

Do certificates help community college students get jobs?

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).

Is community college worth the cost?

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).

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