Teachers College, Columbia University

Community College Enrollment and Completion

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.)

CCRC data viz

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

View all CCRC #dataviz blog posts