The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

Does It Hurt or Help Four-Year College Students to Take Community College Courses?

A student studies on his laptop with headphones on

By Maggie P. Fay and Vivian Yuen Ting Liu

With the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many students are weighing whether to start or return to a four-year college this fall, and some are considering enrolling in a local community college to make academic progress while saving money on tuition, travel, and room and board.

Students already enrolled at four-year colleges and their parents may have questions about whether taking courses at a community college will affect the quality of their education and their likelihood of graduating and getting a good job. New research from CCRC suggests that taking a few courses at a community college can benefit students enrolled in a four-year college.

Using data from the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS)—a national longitudinal survey of students who were 10th graders in 2002—we found that earning between 1 and 10 credits at a community college during the first three years of college enrollment is associated with a higher bachelor’s degree completion rate and higher wages once students enter the labor market. We also found that this may be a good strategy for earning credits in STEM courses, particularly for populations historically underrepresented in STEM, such as women, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color.

In our analysis, we matched students in the ELS to form two like comparison groups based on demographic and academic preparation characteristics. We compared supplementally enrolled students—those who earned between 1 and 10 credits at a community college during their first three years of enrollment at a four-year college—to similar four-year college students who earned no credits at a community college. We examined patterns of coursetaking and outcomes about eight years after college entry for all students and for some population subgroups and found that many students appear to have benefitted from supplemental enrollment.

Diverse Enrollment Patterns

Supplemental enrollment is not uncommon, and it represents one of several diverse enrollment patterns taken by today's college students. Nationally, 8% of students enrolled primarily in four-year colleges take up to a few courses at a community college. Rather than completing college at a single institution, today’s students often move through several higher education institutions to create an educational experience that is more responsive to their needs or works better with their schedules.

STEM Coursetaking

We looked at what type of courses supplementally enrolled students take at community colleges to gain insight into why they do it. At least half of all the community college course credits earned in our study were in STEM subjects, which suggests that students strategically choose to take certain types of courses at community colleges rather than at four-year colleges. Students may take STEM courses because they expect them to be easier at a community college or because they feel more supported in community college STEM courses due to smaller class sizes, more contact with instructors, or the presence of more women and students of color than at four-year colleges.

Bachelor’s Completion and Labor Market Outcomes

We found that, compared to four-year students who earned no credits at community colleges, supplementally enrolled students earned, on average, 4.4 more college credits in total by the eighth year after college entry. They also completed bachelor’s degrees at a rate 4.5 percentage points higher than their peers (the graduation rate for the entire sample of ELS four-year college students was 62%). And they earned $1.40 more per hour eight years after college entry.

Women, Students From Low-Income Backgrounds, and Black and Latinx Students

When we looked at outcomes by gender, income, and race/ethnicity, we found that supplemental enrollment is associated with different outcomes for distinct groups of students. Supplementally enrolled women had higher rates of bachelor’s degree, STEM bachelor’s degree, and graduate degree completion than women who earned no community college credits. Supplementally enrolled men, on the other hand, had lower rates of bachelor’s degree and STEM bachelor’s degree completion than their male peers who earned no community college credits.

There were also differences by income and race/ethnicity. In comparison with students from low-income backgrounds who did not supplementally enroll, low-income students who did earned nearly 10 more college credits in total, and they had higher rates of bachelor’s degree, STEM bachelor’s degree, and graduate degree completion. And after entering the labor market, supplementally enrolled low-income students earned $2.31 more per hour than their low-income peers. Higher-income students who supplementally enrolled also had higher wages than their higher-income peers but did not have higher completion rates.

Black and Latinx students who supplementally enrolled earned more STEM credits than their peers, but their completion rates were similar to Black and Latinx students who did not supplementally enroll. Supplementally enrolled Black and Latinx students did, however, hold nearly $6,000 less in student loan debt, earned more in the labor market, and had a higher rate of full-time employment eight years after college entry.

Why Might Students Benefit?

This research sheds light on questions that students and parents may be asking as they consider what to do about college enrollment this fall. Because of our study’s methodological limitations, we cannot claim that taking a few courses at a community college, while remaining primarily enrolled in a four-year college or university, causes better college and labor market outcomes. But this research suggests that, at the very least, many students who take courses at a community college do not experience a penalty in terms of academic or labor market outcomes. Further, supplemental enrollment is cost-effective: It did not increase student loan debt for any group and reduced it for Black and Latinx students. This research also suggests that taking a few courses at a community college may be a good strategy for women and students from low-income backgrounds who are pursuing STEM-related bachelor’s degrees. While the mechanisms driving the strong STEM outcomes for women and students from low-income backgrounds are not clear, we speculate that introductory-level STEM courses in community colleges may have characteristics—including smaller class sizes, more diverse classrooms, and more personalized contact with instructors—that improve the learning environment for these students.

Maggie P. Fay is a research associate at CCRC. Vivian Yuen Ting Liu is a postdoctoral research associate at CCRC.

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