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Community College FAQs

Community College Enrollment and Completion

Provisional NCES data on unduplicated year-round enrollment (as opposed to fall enrollment only) indicate that 8.7 million undergraduates were enrolled in public two-year colleges in 2016–17.

In fall 2017, 5.8 million students were enrolled in public, two-year colleges. About 2.1 million were full-time students, and 3.7 million were part-time. About 6.1 million were enrolled in all types of two-year colleges.

In fall 2017, 34 percent of undergraduate students attended public two-year colleges (17 percent of full-time undergraduates and 58 percent of part-time undergraduates).

Federal data on the year-round student population show that 38 percent of undergraduates attended public two-year colleges in 2016–17.

Among all students who completed a degree at a four-year college in 2015–16, 49 percent had enrolled at a two-year college in the previous 10 years. Nearly 6 percent attended community colleges only as high school dual enrollment students. Of former community college students who earned a bachelor's degree in 2015–16, 22 percent were enrolled for only one term, but 63 percent were enrolled at a two-year public institution for three or more terms.

Texas had the most former community college students among bachelor's degree earners in 2015–16 with 75 percent. Rhode Island had the fewest with 24 percent.

About 55 percent of dependent students with family incomes below $30,000 in 2011–12 started at a community college. For students with family incomes of $106,000 or more, it was 23 percent (BPS2014 via QuickStats).

Among college students who first enrolled in fall 2010, 49 percent of Black students and 51 percent of Hispanic students started at a two-year public college, compared with 36 percent of White students and 38 percent of Asian students.

In fall 2017, 44 percent of Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, compared with 35 percent of Black students and 31 percent of White students. Overall, 34 percent of undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges.

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 proportion of students overall, dependent students, and independent students who fell into each income category in 2016 (NPSAS 2015–16).

 Income Overall Dependent Independent
 Less than $20,000 37% 23% 47%
 $20,000–49,999 30% 28% 31%
 $50,000 and up 33% 49% 22%

Among students who started college in fall 2016 at a public two-year college, 62.2 percent were still enrolled at any institution in fall 2017. Just under 49 percent returned to the same college. The one-year persistence rate of students who started full-time was 70.6 percent; for part-time starters, it was 55.6 percent.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, among first-time college students who enrolled in a community college in the fall of 2012 either part-time or full-time, 39.2 percent earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years. That figure excludes dual enrollment students.

The six-year completion rate for White students who started at a community college in the fall of 2012 was 48.1 percent. For Asian students it was 49.1 percent, for Hispanic students it was 35.7 percent, and for Black students it was 27.5 percent.

About 15.8 percent of students who started at community colleges in 2012 completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years. Asian and White students who started at community colleges earned bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than the overall average (26.2 percent and 20.8 percent respectively). Hispanic (13.2 percent) and Black students (9.5 percent) earned bachelor’s degrees at rates lower than the average.

The most recent national data indicate that 14 percent of dependent students with family incomes 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.

Developmental Education in the Community College

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; 59 percent took at least one course in math, and 28 percent took at least one course in English. At four-year public colleges, 40 percent of students took one or more remedial courses within six years; 33 percent took math and 11 percent took English.

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.

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.

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 28 percent of these students went on to earn any degree or certificate within 8.5 years, compared with 43 percent of non-developmental students.

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.

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.

Students who complete their remedial courses are more likely than partial completers or noncompleters to stay in college and earn a bachelor’s degree. But the results vary depending on students' level of academic preparation: Remediation helps weakly prepared students on several indicators but not moderately or strongly prepared students, compared with similar students who do not take remedial courses.

Moderately or strongly prepared community college students who complete some of their remedial courses are worse off than similar students who take no remedial courses on several indicators, including college-level credits earned, transfer to a four-year college, and bachelor’s degree completion. Weakly prepared students who completed some of their remedial courses performed at least as well as their nonremedial counterparts in most areas.

A number of other studies on remediation 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.)

Forty-nine percent of remedial coursetakers who started at community colleges in 2003–04 completed all the remedial courses they attempted, 35 percent completed some courses, and 16 percent completed none. That compares with 59 percent at four-year colleges who completed all their courses, 25 percent who completed some, and 15 percent who completed none.

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.

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.

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 and the annual cost of remediation at all colleges to be nearly $7 billion.

A CCRC study of 250,000 community college students found that only 20 percent of those referred to developmental math and 37 percent of those referred to developmental reading enrolled in a developmental course and went on to pass the relevant entry-level or "gatekeeper" college course within three years.

An additional 12 percent of students referred to developmental math and 32 percent of students referred to developmental reading completed a gatekeeper course in that subject without enrolling in a single developmental course in that same subject.

CCRC’s study of a statewide community college system found that about half of developmental English students and a 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 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.

Among students who started at a community college in 2003 who enrolled in remedial English, 67 percent had earned college-level English credits by 2009, compared with 70 percent of nonremedial students. In math, 45 percent of students who enrolled in remedial courses had earned college-level math credits by 2009, compared with 48 percent of nonremedial students.

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.

Among students who started at a community college in 2003, enrolled in remediation, and completed their remedial coursework, 43 percent had earned a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree by 2009. Twenty-two percent were still enrolled. (Those numbers were slightly better than for nonremedial students.) For those who finished part of their remedial coursework, 26 percent had earned a credential, and 27 percent were still enrolled. For those who enrolled in but completed no remedial coursework, 16 percent had earned a credential, and 18 percent were still enrolled.

For more on the impact of developmental courses on student outcomes, visit the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) FAQs.

Developmental Education Placement Exams

In a 2011 survey, 100 percent of public two-year colleges reported using a math placement test to assign students to developmental courses, and 94 percent reported using a reading test.

For years, two college placement exams dominated the market: ACT's COMPASS exam and the College Board's ACCUPLACER. But in 2015, ACT announced that it was phasing out the COMPASS exam.

Before that, 49 percent of public two-year colleges reported using the COMPASS algebra test, and 32 percent used the ACCUPLACER elementary algebra test, with smaller percentages using college-level COMPASS and ACCUPLACER tests. Thirty-two percent of community colleges used the ACT mathematics test for placement, and some used the SAT or other tests. Some colleges used more than one test.

In English, 61 percent of public two-year colleges used the COMPASS reading test, and 39 percent used the ACCUPLACER reading comprehension test. Smaller percentages used the ASSET test, the SAT, the ACT, or other tests.

Seven community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system are participating in a randomized study in which 13,000 students were placed using multiple measures or placement tests alone. In the first semester of the study, students placed using multiple measures were 5 percentage points more likely to be placed into college-level math and more than 30 percentage points more likely to be placed into college-level English than their peers evaluated using placement tests alone. Students placed using multiple measures were also more likely to pass college-level English and math in their first term.

One CCRC study of a statewide community college system found that the ACCUPLACER severely misplaces 33 percent of entering community college students. Based on their ACCUPLACER scores, a 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).

Another CCRC study of a large urban system found that the COMPASS severely misplaced 33 percent of entering students in English and 24 percent of entering students in math. Using the best of either placement test scores or high school transcript information was predicted to lower the remediation rate by 8 percentage points in math and 12 percentage points in English without compromising success rates in college-level courses.

In response to the research about the inaccuracy of placement tests, the number of colleges using a combination of measures to place students has grown substantially. In 2016, 57 percent of community colleges used multiple measures for placement in math and 51 percent used multiple measures for placement in reading and writing.

A wide variety of instruments are currently available that assess noncognitive 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 noncognitive 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

Accelerated developmental education is an approach that reorganizes developmental education instruction and/or curricula 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.

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 are intended to 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. Examples include modularized, computerized math instruction, math pathways, and integrated reading and writing courses.

Mainstreaming models accelerate students’ progress by placing students referred to developmental education directly into college-level courses. Corequisite remediation 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 involves placing students directly into college-level occupational courses that integrate relevant basic skills instruction.

A random assignment study being conducted at four community colleges in Texas by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness has found that math pathways reforms, which accelerate developmental math and create alternative math pathways for students who don’t need algebra for their majors, help students pass developmental and college-level math at higher rates.

Virginia’s accelerated developmental English courses were implemented in spring 2013. Virginia integrated separate developmental reading and writing courses into a combined course and created one-semester courses of eight, four, or two credits for students at different levels of remedial need. The redesigned courses replaced as many as two writing courses and two reading courses before college English. Before the reform, 45 percent of students completed introductory college English in one year. After the reform, that figure was 56 percent (CCRC analysis of data from the ASDER project).

Corequisite remediation, in which students take college-level math or English courses coupled with a parallel developmental class or other academic supports, allows many more students to pass the college-level course, and to do it faster. Tennessee, for instance, reported significant gains after implementing corequisite remediation in its community colleges in fall 2015. While 12 percent of students passed college-level math within a year under the prerequisite model, 51 percent of students passed college-level math in one semester under the corequisite model. And while 31 percent passed college-level writing within a year under the prerequisite model, 59 percent passed college-level writing in a semester under the corequisite model.

Dual Enrollment and Dual-Credit Programs

In 2010–11, approximately 2 million students were taking dual enrollment courses. Eighty-two percent of high schools reported having dually enrolled students. Seventy-six percent of 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.

Among students who started ninth grade in 2009, 34 percent ever took a dual enrollment course. White and Asian students were more likely to take dual enrollment courses than Black and Hispanic students.

Former dual enrollment students represented 18 percent of first-time-in-college, degree-seeking students who started college in fall 2012: 15 percent of the cohort at community colleges, 21 percent at public four-year colleges, and 16 percent at private nonprofit colleges.

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.

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 1.6 million in 2007–08 to 2.8 million in 2017–18.

According the most recent report from the National Center of Education Statistics, 63 percent of high schools that offer dual enrollment courses have requirements that students must meet in order to enroll.

CCRC has conducted studies in Florida, New York City, and California that showed that dual enrollment participation is positively related to a range of college outcomes, including enrollment and persistence, credit accumulation, and GPA.

A CCRC study that tracked 200,000 high school students who first took a community college course in fall 2010 found that 88 percent of the students continued in college after high school. Nearly half first attended a community college after high school and 41 percent attended a four-year college. Among former dual enrollment students who started at a community college after high school, 46 percent earned a college credential within five years.

Online Education

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, 5.2 million undergraduates (or 31 percent) took at least one distance education course in fall 2016. In fall 2017, two thirds of community college students were not enrolled in any distance education courses, 20 percent were enrolled in some, and 13 percent were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses.

A 2016 survey on online learning by the Babson Survey Research Group found that nearly 6.4 million college students (32 percent) took at least one online course in fall 2016—a 5.6 percent increase from fall 2015.

A CCRC study of Washington State community and technical college students found that completion rates in online courses were 5.5 percentage points lower 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. Students who took higher proportions of online courses were slightly less likely to attain a degree or transfer to a four-year college.

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.

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 performing 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 GPA).

Community College Costs and Financial Aid

In 2018–19, the average published tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,660, compared with $10,230 at public four-year colleges. The average net price, however, was -$400, meaning that grants and tax benefits covered tuition and fees plus a portion of other expenses for the average full-time community college student.

While sticker prices at community colleges have increased over the past decade (from $2,730 in 2008–09, adjusted to 2018 dollars), net prices at community colleges are lower than they were 10 years ago.

According to the 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, after accounting for grants (but not tax credits), 44 percent of full-time community college students pay no tuition or receive money to cover other expenses. About 14 percent pay something but less than $1,100, and about 14 percent pay more than $3,400 after accounting for grants.

Community colleges have the lowest FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application rate of any sector at 60 percent. Public four-year institutions have the next lowest FAFSA application rate at 73 percent.

The rate of Pell receipt for community college students has fallen in recent years from 38 percent in 2011–12 to 33.5 percent in 2015–16. 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 lower than at public four-year colleges and at private nonprofit four-year colleges.

About 23 percent of dependent community college students and 47 percent of independent community college students have family incomes of less than $20,000. About 80 percent of community college students work, with 39 percent working full-time. Yet only 2 percent of community college students receive any Federal Work Study aid, compared with 14 percent of undergraduates at private nonprofit four-year colleges.

Sampled in 2015–16, 36 percent of all community college students had taken out at least some loans, similar to the percentage in 2011–12 but up from 30 percent in 2007–08. Twenty-four percent had borrowed less than $13,500, and 12 percent had borrowed more than $13,500. Both the rate of borrowing and the amount borrowed are far lower than in other sectors. For example, 60 percent of students at public four-year institutions and 82 percent of students at for-profits borrowed.

Among students who graduated with an associate degree from a public two-year college in 2015–16, 59 percent took no student loans, 30 percent had less than $20,000 in loans, and around 13 percent had more than $20,000 in loans. A smaller percentage of community college graduates took out loans than four-year graduates or for-profit graduates.

Nonetheless, community college borrowers have lower repayment rates than public and private nonprofit university borrowers. Sixty-eight percent of community college graduates who entered repayment in 2009–10 and 2010–11 paid down at least a dollar of loan principal after five years. Only 39 percent of noncompleters had started paying their principal. Around 80 percent of public and private nonprofit four-year graduates had started paying their loan principal. While about 26 percent of community college borrowers default within 12 years of entering college, only 13 percent of community college entrants default because of the much smaller fraction of borrowers at community colleges.

Transfer to Four-Year Colleges

While about 80 percent of entering community college students indicate they want to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, only 29 percent of community college students who started in fall 2011 actually transferred to a four-year institution within six years. Among community college students who transferred to a four-year college, 72 percent transferred to public institutions, 20 percent to private nonprofit institutions, and 8 percent to for-profit institutions.

Of the 29 percent of first-time, degree-seeking community college students who transferred to four-year colleges, 42 percent completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. In other words, 12 percent of the entire 2011 cohort of entering community college students earned a bachelor's degree within six years.

Bachelor’s completion rates are higher among students who earn an associate degree or certificate before transferring. Among community college students who transferred with an associate degree, 48 percent completed a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting at a community college, compared with 35 percent of community college students who transferred without an associate degree. One study 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.

Bachelor’s completion varies by type of four-year institution. Of students who transferred to four-year public institutions, 42 percent completed a bachelor’s within six years of starting at a community college. Of students who transferred to private nonprofit four-year institutions, 30 percent completed a bachelor’s within six years. Of students who transferred to private for-profit four-year institutions, 6 percent completed a bachelor’s within six years. Additionally, among students who transferred to very selective four-year institutions, 52 percent completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. Of transfers to moderately selective and nonselective four-year institutions, 39 percent and 22 percent completed bachelor’s degrees within six years of starting at a community college.

Transfer students who enrolled full-time were significantly more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting college (60 percent) than students who switched between full- and part-time enrollment (38 percent) and students who enrolled exclusively part-time (6 percent).

Lower income transfer students (35 percent) were less likely to earn a bachelor's degree within six years than higher income students (49 percent).

Thirty-eight 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.

Economic Returns to Community College

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.

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.

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.

Tuition and fees at community colleges are approximately $3,600 per year of full-time study. 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. In short, the earnings gains are large compared with the fees.

Plus, there are many other benefits of attending college besides having higher earnings.

CCRC data viz

CCRC's data visualizations offer an interactive way to explore trends in community college outcomes.

View all CCRC #dataviz blog posts

CAPSEE's By the Numbers Series

by-the-numbers

Visit CAPSEE's website for a graphical introduction to for-profit colleges, financial aid, and college graduate earnings.