Community College FAQs
Community College Enrollment and Completion
According to a CCRC analysis, community colleges enrolled 8.9 million students in the 2020-21 academic year, representing 41% of undergraduates. In fall 2021, the CCRC analysis found that about 5.7 million students were enrolled in community colleges (36% of fall undergraduate enrollment).
Federal data on public two-year college enrollment underestimates the number of community college students as there are more than 100 community colleges that offer a small number of bachelor’s degrees and are defined by the Department of Education as public four-year institutions. According to this federal data, 7 million students were enrolled in public two-year colleges during the 2020–21 academic year, about 33% of undergraduate students. In fall 2021, about 4.5 million students were enrolled in public two-year colleges, 29% of undergraduate students, according to federal data. About 1.5 million were full-time students and 3.1 million were part-time.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to steep enrollment drops at community colleges but enrollment seems to be recovering. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that enrollment in public two-year colleges in fall 2023 grew by 4.4% from fall 2022.
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 45% of public two-year college students are considered financially dependent on their parents and 55% are considered independent, according to federal data. About 67% of public four-year college students are financially dependent.
Among public two-year college students, family income broke down as follows in 2019-20:
|$50,000 and up||35%||50%||23%|
In the 2020-2021 academic year, 51% of Hispanic undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, compared with 42% of Asian undergraduates, 40% of Black undergraduates, and 39% of White undergraduates. Overall, 41% of undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges, according to a CCRC analysis 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 2020-2021 academic year, enrollment at community colleges was 7% Asian, 12% Black, 26% Hispanic, and 44% White, according to the CCRC analysis.
Among students who started college in fall 2021 at a public two-year institution, 61.6% were still enrolled at any institution in fall 2022, up 3% from the recent low point of 58.5% for the fall 2019 cohort. About 53% returned to the same college. The one-year persistence rate of students who started full-time was 69%; for part-time starters, it was 50%.
Among first-time college students who enrolled in a public two-year college in fall 2016 either part-time or full-time, 43% earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years. That figure excludes dual enrollment students. About 67% of full-time students earned a credential within six years and 20% of part-time students. Around 38% 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 public two-year college in the fall of 2016 was 53%. For Black students it was 31%, for Latinx students it was 38%, for Native American students it was 39%, and for White students it was 51%.
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
According to a New America analysis of federal data, 40% of students at public two-year colleges in the 2019-20 academic year had ever taken a developmental course, compared with 56% of students surveyed in 2015-16. At public four-year colleges it was 25%. Black, Hispanic, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students were overrepresented, with 50% of Black students, 45% of Hispanic students, and 44% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students ever having taken a developmental course.
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.
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 in a method 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" into college-level courses and failed or "underplaced" into 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 (SUNY) 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. After nine terms, students who were bumped up using multiple measures were about 9 percentage points more likely than similar students left in developmental education to complete a college-level math or English course.
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.)
Among students who started at a public two-year college in 2003 and enrolled in any remedial courses, 33% earned a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree by 2009, and 23% were still enrolled. Students who passed more of their remedial coursework were more likely to earn a credential.
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 were still common, 68% of community colleges offered compressed math courses, 54% offered multiple math pathways, 50% offered self-paced courses, and 28% used the corequisite model in at least some sections.
In English, 64% of community colleges offered integrated reading and writing courses, 54% offered compressed courses, and 56% offered corequisite English in at least some sections.
Some states, including California, have mandated that colleges use multiple measures assessment to place students and that they place the vast majority of students who need academic support in corequisite courses.
Dual Enrollment and Dual Credit Programs
Dual enrollment students (students under the age of 18) were 16% of the enrollment at public two-year colleges in spring 2023. The number of dual enrollment students attending public two-year colleges increased 8% from spring 2022. The number of dual enrollment students in community colleges has grown dramatically in the last several years.
Of 982,000 dual enrollment students in spring 2023, 652,000 were enrolled at public two-year colleges.
Former dual enrollment students represented 23% of first-time-in-college, degree-seeking students who started college in fall 2016: 20% of the cohort at public two-year colleges, 26% at public four-year colleges, and 20% at private nonprofit four-year colleges.
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.
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).
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. Nationally, White students are overrepresented and Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented.
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.
Just over 65% of public two-year college students, about 3 million students, took at least one distance education course in fall 2021. Forty percent of public two-year college students were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. The percentage of students who take distance education courses was growing steadily before the COVID-19 pandemic and then jumped dramatically in fall 2020 but fell in fall 2021.
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 3–15% 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 2023–24, the average published tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,990, compared with $11,260 at public four-year colleges, according to the College Board. After grant aid, full-time students had an average of $330 left for other expenses, well short of the cost of attendance, which was estimated at $15,540.
According to a CCRC analysis of federal data from 2019-20, after accounting for grants, 35% of full-time public two-year college students pay no tuition or receive money to cover other expenses. About 14% pay something but less than $1,000 and 21% pay between $1,000 and $2,500. About 30% pay $2,500 or more after accounting for grants.
Public two-year colleges have the lowest FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application rate of any sector at 61%, according to a CCRC analysis of federal data from 2019-20. For public and private nonprofit four-year institutions, the FAFSA application rate is about 74%.
About 37% of public two-year college students received Federal Pell Grants in 2019-20. Those students received an average of $3,600.
Nearly three-quarters of public two-year college students work while enrolled, with 46% working full time, according to a CCRC analysis of federal data from 2019-20. Yet only 1.4% of public two-year college students receive any Federal Work-Study aid, compared with 14% of undergraduates at private nonprofit four-year colleges.
In 2019–20, 12% of public two-year college students took out student loans, compared with 40% of public four-year college students.
Surveyed in 2019–20, 37% of all public two-year college students had taken out loans during their undergraduate studies, similar to the percentage in 2015–16 but up from 30% in 2007–08, according to a CCRC analysis of federal data. Twenty-four percent had borrowed less than $14,900, and 13% had borrowed more than $14,900. 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 86% 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 32% of community college students who started in fall 2015 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 32% of first-time, degree-seeking community college students who transferred to four-year colleges, 49% completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. In other words, 16% of the entire 2015 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, 47% completed a bachelor’s within six years of starting at a community college. Of students who transferred to private nonprofit four-year institutions, 34% completed a bachelor’s within six years. Of students who transferred to private for-profit four-year institutions, 10% completed a bachelor’s within six years.
Forty-four 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 2021–22, nearly 23% had already earned an associate degree and 1.7% had earned a 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 workers who earn community college awards. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that graduates with associate degrees make $2 million in lifetime earnings, compared with $2.8 million for bachelor’s degree holders and $1.6 million for full-time workers with a high school diploma.
But the exact amount varies. It depends on the type and length of the credential and what subject is studied, with fields including engineering and health care leading to higher earnings for associate degree holders. Other factors include whether the student transfers to a four-year college and how well their program aligns to a bachelor's degree, as well as the strength of the labor market.
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.
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. However, the value of an associate degree grows substantially after graduation, while the returns to a long-term certificate remain flat.