Teachers College, Columbia University

Community College Enrollment and Completion

Federal data indicate that 7.7 million students were enrolled in public two-year colleges during the academic year 2019–20, about 35% of undergraduate students.

In fall 2020, about 4.8 million students were enrolled in public two-year colleges, 29% of undergraduate students. About 1.6 million were full-time students, and 3.1 million were part-time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to steep enrollment drops at community colleges. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that 4.7 million students were enrolled in public two-year colleges in fall 2021, down 3.4% from fall 2020. That's on top of a 10% drop from the year before.

However, these studies underestimate the number of community college students, as about 100 community colleges offer a small number of bachelor’s degree programs and are listed in federal data as four-year institutions. According to a CCRC analysis correcting for this misclassification, 6.7 million students were enrolled at community colleges in fall 2017 and nearly 10 million students enrolled at a community college at some point during the 2017-18 academic year, about 44% of undergraduates.

Among all students who completed a degree at a four-year college in 2015–16, 49% had enrolled at a public two-year college in the previous 10 years. Nearly 6% attended public two-year colleges only as high school dual enrollment students. Texas had the most former public two-year college students among bachelor's degree earners in 2015–16 with 75%. Rhode Island had the fewest with 24%.

About 37% of dependent undergraduate students whose families earned less than $20,000 a year attended public two-year colleges in 2015-16. For families earning $100,000 or more, it was 18%.

Among public two-year college students, family income broke down as follows:

 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%

CCRC analysis of NPSAS 2015-16 income data.

In the 2018-19 academic year, 55% of Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, compared with 45% of Asian undergraduates, 44% of Black undergraduates, and 41% of White undergraduates. Overall, 44% of undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, according to an analysis by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) of IPEDS data that adjusts the IPEDS definition of two-year public colleges to include about 100 community colleges that award small numbers of bachelor's degrees.

In the 2018-19 academic year, enrollment at community colleges was 7% Asian, 13% Black, 25% Hispanic, and 45% White, according to the AACC analysis.

Among students who started college in fall 2019 at a public two-year college, 59% were still enrolled at any institution in fall 2020, down 3.5% from the 2018 cohort. Just under 52% returned to the same college. The one-year persistence rate of students who started full-time was 67%; for part-time starters, it was 46%.

Among first-time college students who enrolled in a community college in fall 2014 either part-time or full-time, 40% earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years. That figure excludes dual enrollment students. About 63% of full-time students earned a credential within six years and 18% of part-time students. Around 36% of students with mixed full- and part-time enrollment completed a credential. The credential could be a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's degree.

The six-year completion rate for Asian students who started at a community college in the fall of 2014 was 51%. For Black students it was 28%, for Hispanic students it was 36%, and for White students it was 49%.

Students from higher income families who enrolled at a public two-year college in 2011-12 were more likely to earn a credential within six years than students from lower income families. Thirty-six percent of dependent students with family incomes in the lowest income quartile (less than $30,000) completed a credential by 2017. That compares to 39% in the second-lowest quartile ($30,000-59,999), 47% in the third quartile ($60,000-$89,999), and 51% in the highest earning quartile ($90,000 or more). (Visit the NCES Datalab for a breakdown of the types of credentials earned.)

Developmental Education in Community Colleges

Among students who started at public two-year colleges in 2013-14, 60% took one or more remedial courses within three years. They took an average of 2.9 courses. That compares with 32% of public four-year college students who took an average of two courses.

Federal data indicate that 68% 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% took at least one course in math, and 28% took at least one course in English. At public four-year colleges, 40% of students took one or more remedial courses within six years.

At public two-year colleges, 78% of Black students, 75% of Hispanic students, and 64% of White students took remedial courses. Of students in the lowest income group, 76% took remedial courses, compared with 59% in the highest income group.

In a 2016 survey, 99% of public two-year colleges reported using a math placement test to determine students' college readiness, and 98% reported using standardized placement tests in reading and writing. A growing number are combining test scores with additional measures—including noncognitive assessments—to determine placement, called multiple measures assessment. In 2016, 57% of community colleges used multiple measures for placement in math and 51% used multiple measures for placement in reading and writing.

One CCRC study of a statewide community college system found that the ACCUPLACER severely misplaces 33% 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 to 17%.

More recent studies, including a randomized controlled trial of multiple measures assessment in the State University of New York system, indicate that bumping supposedly “overplaced” students down into developmental courses hurts their chances of passing a college-level course. Both groups did better when given a chance to take college-level courses. In the SUNY study, students placed using multiple measures were 7 percentage points more likely to be placed into college-level math and 34 percentage points more likely to be placed into college-level English than their peers evaluated using placement tests alone.

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

A CCRC study of 57 community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative found that only 33% of students referred to developmental math and 46% of students referred to developmental reading go on to complete the entire developmental sequence.

Developmental completion rates vary according to remedial level. Only 17% of students referred to the lowest level of developmental math complete the sequence, while 45% of those referred to the highest level complete the sequence.

A CCRC study of 250,000 community college students found that only 20% of those referred to developmental math and 37% 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% of students referred to developmental math and 32% of students referred to developmental reading completed a gatekeeper course without enrolling in a developmental course in the subject.

A number of 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.)

A 2006 study found that among students who take at least one remedial course, 28% go on to complete a college credential within 8.5 years.

Among students who started at a public two-year college in 2003, enrolled in remediation, and completed their remedial coursework, 43% 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% earned a credential, and 27% were still enrolled. For those who enrolled in but completed no remedial coursework, 16% earned a credential, and 18% 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.

A 2016 survey by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) found that while multi-semester developmental math sequences are still common, 68% of community colleges offer compressed math courses, 54% offer multiple math pathways, 50% offer self-paced courses, and 28% use the corequisite model in at least some sections.

In English, 64% of community colleges offer integrated reading and writing courses, 54% offer compressed courses, and 56% offer corequisite English in at least some sections.

Dual Enrollment and Dual-Credit Programs

In 2010–11, approximately 1.4 million students took dual enrollment courses. Seventy-six percent of schools reported that students took dual enrollment courses with an academic focus, and 46% reported that students took dual enrollment courses with a career or technical-vocational focus.

Eighty-two percent of public high schools reported that students participated in dual enrollment courses in 2017-18. Funding was provided by the school, district, or state in 78% of schools with dual enrollment, while in 42% of the schools, families or students paid for the courses. In 10% of schools, another entity provided funding.  

Among students who started ninth grade in 2009, 34% 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 19% of first-time-in-college, degree-seeking students who started college in fall 2014: 17% of the cohort at community colleges, 23% at public four-year colleges, and 17% at private nonprofit colleges.

According to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 69% of high schools reported enrollments in AP or IB courses, with a total of about 3.5 million enrollments (course enrollments, not individual students).

The number of AP exam-takers was 2.5 million in 2020-21.

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. The What Works Clearinghouse found that dual enrollment programs have positive effects on degree attainment, college access and enrollment, credit accumulation, and other outcomes. 

A recent CCRC study in Florida found that all racial and ethnic groups studied benefitted from dual enrollment. But the vast majority of districts nationally have racial/ethnic gaps in AP and dual enrollment participation. 

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

Online Education

Just under 37% of public two-year college students, about two million students, took at least one distance education course in fall 2019. Fifteen percent of public two-year college students were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. The percentage of students who take distance education courses had been growing steadily and jumped in fall 2020.

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. Among students who ever enrolled in an online course, the completion rate for 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% and 9.8%, 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 the online course 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 2019 review of studies of online learning found that while online courses can improve access to education, semester-length online courses are associated with negative effects on student course performance, course persistence, and other outcomes. Research suggests that community college students in online courses are between 3% and 15% more likely to withdraw than similar students in face-to-face classes.

For more resources, visit the Online Learning Research Center at the University of California, Irvine.

A CCRC study found that while all community college students show a reduction in performance in fully online courses, some students show a steeper decline than others, including male students, students with lower 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% 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% more likely to drop out. Black students overall receive a 0.3 point lower grade than White students in face-to-face courses (2.7 vs. 3.0 GPA). In fully online courses, they receive a 0.6 point lower grade (2.2 vs. 2.8 GPA).

Community College Costs and Financial Aid

In 2021-22, the average published tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,800, compared with $10,740 at public four-year colleges. After grant aid, students had an average of $660 left for other expenses, well short of the cost of attendance.

According to a CCRC analysis of federal data from 2018, after accounting for grants, 41% of full-time public two-year college students pay no tuition or receive money to cover other expenses. About 12% pay something but less than $1,000 and 21% pay between $1,000 and $2,500. About 26% pay $2,500 or more after accounting for grants.

Public two-year colleges had the lowest FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application rate of any sector at 59%, according to a CCRC analysis of federal data from 2018. Public four-year institutions had the next lowest FAFSA application rate at 68%.

The percentage of public two-year college students who receive Pell Grants grew from 33.5% in 2015-16 to 42% in 2017-18, pushing the rate above that of public and private four-year colleges. 

About 23% of dependent community college students and 47% of independent community college students have family incomes of less than $20,000 (See enrollment by income question above). Two-thirds of public two-year college students work, with 32% working full-time. Yet only 2% of public two-year college students receive any work study aid, compared with 20% of undergraduates at private nonprofit four-year colleges.

In 2017-18, 15% of public two-year college students took out student loans, compared with 43% of public four-year college students.

Sampled in 2015–16, 36% of all public two-year college students had taken out loans during their undergraduate studies, similar to the percentage in 2011–12 but up from 30% in 2007–08, according to a CCRC analysis of federal data. Twenty-four percent had borrowed less than $13,500, and 12% 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% of students at public four-year institutions and 82% of students at for-profits borrowed.

While about 26% of community college borrowers default within 12 years of entering college, only 13% of community college entrants default because of the much smaller fraction of borrowers at community colleges.

Transfer to Four-Year Colleges

While about 80% of entering community college students indicate they want to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, only 31% of community college students who started in fall 2014 actually transferred to a four-year institution within six years. Among community college students who transferred to a four-year college, 75% transferred to public institutions, 19% to private nonprofit institutions, and 6% to for-profit institutions.

Of the 31% of first-time, degree-seeking community college students who transferred to four-year colleges, 47% completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. In other words, 15% of the entire 2014 cohort of entering community college students earned a bachelor's degree within six years.

Bachelor’s completion varies by type of four-year institution. Of students who transferred to four-year public institutions, 46% completed a bachelor’s within six years of starting at a community college. Of students who transferred to private nonprofit four-year institutions, 33% completed a bachelor’s within six years. Of students who transferred to private for-profit four-year institutions, 9% completed a bachelor’s within six years. 

Lower income transfer students (40%) were less likely to earn a bachelor's degree within six years than higher income students (54%).

Forty-two 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. Among students who earned bachelor's degrees in 2018-19, 22% had already earned an associate degree.

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 $3,770 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