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INSIGHTS BLOG > Which Students Should Community Colleges Cut?

Which Students Should Community Colleges Cut?

Written on 18 February 2011

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

US Community Colleges

California Community Colleges

What Are the Socially Optimal Alternatives for Community Colleges?


A recent article in the NYT, “High Enrollment Strains Two-Year Colleges” by Kevin Helliker

Discusses the double-whammy community colleges are facing with the lingering recession: state budget pressures are forcing cuts in state funding for community colleges, while cash-strapped students are by-passing four-year colleges in favor of community colleges.  Decreasing budgets  yet record enrollments mean the community colleges must make some tough choices.


At the same time, the article questions the ability of community colleges to effectively transition students into four-year colleges:

Some educational experts are skeptical that community colleges will ever serve as an effective bridge to baccalaureate degrees. While … polls consistently show a majority of community college entrants aiming for a four-year degree, a recent report … shows that fewer than 12% of students who entered a two-year school in 2004 had a baccalaureate degree by 2009.

"Unless two-year colleges substantially improve their success at getting their graduates into four-year colleges and universities, the end result will be a substantial decline in baccalaureate degree attainment rates in future years"…

One proposal suggests managing student demand by giving priority to new, incoming students, instead of the current policy of giving priority to students who are already enrolled but are lingering in the system:

In California, an admissions system that favors students who are already enrolled could make it difficult for incoming freshmen to win spots in classes. That has given rise to a proposal to place perennial students—those who accumulate credit after credit without ever graduating—at the back of the line.

Another proposal suggests managing student demand by increasing academic standards for admission:

To many in community-college administration, accessibility remains a near-sacred obligation..."Our two-year schools are open-admission institutions. They accept students who have high school diplomas."

… [S]ome community colleges are considering establishing an academic bar. "They're saying, 'Maybe we should set a floor—a certain level of skills you need to have' " to win admittance.

This article begs several question.  Three in particular stand out:

  1. What is the theoretical purpose/mission of community colleges?
  2. What are community colleges actually achieving?
  3. Given current budget cuts, together with the mission of community colleges, which are the least bad alternatives?


US Community Colleges

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (emphasis is mine),

Community colleges are centers of educational opportunity. They are an American invention that put publicly funded higher education at close-to-home facilities … they have been inclusive institutions that welcome all who desire to learn, regardless of wealth, heritage, or previous academic experience. The process of making higher education available to the maximum number of people continues to evolve at 1,173 public and independent community colleges.

… In simplest terms, the mission of the community college is to provide education for individuals, many of whom are adults, in its service region. Most community college missions have basic commitments to:

• serve all segments of society through an open-access admissions policy that offers equal and fair treatment to all students

• a comprehensive educational program

• serve its community as a community-based institution of higher education

• teaching

• lifelong learning

From the American Association of Community Colleges Fast Facts (Data are derived from the most current information available as of December 2009):

Headcount Enrollment

Fall 2007 total . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . 11.8 million

Credit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.8 million

Noncredit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 million

Enrolled full time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40%

Enrolled part time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60%


Average age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

21 or younger . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46%

22–39. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40%

40 or older . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16%

Minorities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40%

First generation to attend college . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .42%

Single parents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16%

Non-U.S. citizens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7%

Average Annual Tuition and Fees

Community colleges (public) . . . . . . . . . $2,544

4-year colleges (public) . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$7,020

Degrees and Certificates Awarded

Associate degrees . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 605,267

Certificates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 325,452


California Community Colleges

I was interested in understanding more about the students enrolled in community colleges.  This type of information is not available at the national level, but it is available for the California Community Colleges system (CCC system).  So to delve a little deeper into the data, I focused my analysis on California.

From the California Community Colleges website:

The California Community Colleges is the largest higher education system in the nation.  It is comprised of 72 districts, 112 colleges and enrolls more than 2.9 million students. Community colleges provide basic skills education, workforce training and courses that prepare students for transfer to four-year universities. The colleges also offer opportunities for personal enrichment and lifelong learning.

So the CCC system has the same basic mission as the larger US community colleges system, and it enrolls almost a quarter (2.9M / 11.9M = 24.4%) of the total US student population.  A closer examination of students in the CCC system should thus provide a pretty good indication of what the entire US community college student population looks like.

Distribution of Students

According to the Fall 2009 enrollment status of CCC system students (see following table and graph),

  • about 12% of enrolled students have already received either an AA or a BA degree
  • about 8% of enrolled students have not received a high school degree
  • about 13% of enrolled students have an unknown academic status
  • the remaining 67% or so of enrolled students have a high school degree but no college degree.  Of these students, almost three-fourths are in their freshman year of study.

This distribution of students has remained relatively constant since at least 2007.

What this distributions says is that the CCC system is serving its community members at different capacities:

  • A nontrivial portion of CCC system students is comprised of students who already have a (AA or BA) college degree, but are interested in pursuing post-college learning.
  • A small fraction of advanced, pre-college students enroll in the CCC to learn at levels higher than their elementary and high schools can provide.
  • Another small portion of CCC system students is helping community members who never received a high school degree work towards earning their GED, learning English, or otherwise becoming more educated.
  • Finally, the greater part of CCC system students are high school graduates who are working toward a 2-year or 4-year college degree.

5-Year Graduation Rates

According to the article (emphasis mine),

Some educational experts are skeptical that community colleges will ever serve as an effective bridge to baccalaureate degrees. While the new Pearson Foundation survey and other polls consistently show a majority of community college entrants aiming for a four-year degree, a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that fewer than 12% of students who entered a two-year school in 2004 had a baccalaureate degree by 2009.

There is a strong implication here that the community colleges have a mission to transition students into 4-year schools and have them receive bachelor degrees, and that the system is failing in this mission.  Is this an accurate expectation?

To have succeeded at their mission as per the article’s definition of success -- having the majority of students who entered a community college in 2004 have earned a baccalaureate degree by 2009 -- the entering students would have had to

  • Have entered community college as high school graduates
  • Have been full-time students
  • Not have been remedial in any/many areas
  • Have successfully transitioned to 4-year colleges within 3 years (assuming students need two years to complete upper division course requirements for a baccalaureate degree at a 4-year school)
  • Have decided on their majors in a timely fashion
  • Have been able to enroll in the classes they wanted in a timely fashion
  • Have successfully passed (almost) all of their classes

How likely is it that students who entered community college in 2004 would have met all these requirements?

I would surmise that students who choose community colleges over four-year colleges either:

  • Cannot afford to be full-time students and/or
  • Have responsibilities that prevent them from being full-time students and/or
  • Do not have the same motivation as students who choose four-year colleges and/or
  • Need remediation in at least one area of study and/or
  • Are more interested in earning vocational skills and/or an AA degree than a bachelor’s degree.

To the extent that my presumption is accurate, community college students would therefore be very unlikely to have met the requirements listed above for earning a baccalaureate degree within five years of starting their studies.  In this case it would be unreasonable to expect a majority of community college students to earn a bachelor’s degree within five years of starting college.

As a point of reference, let’s see what the five-year graduation rates are for California’s four-year institutions.   According to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the five-year graduation rates for students entering college in 2001 were:

  • University of California:  76.6%
  • California State University:  36.2%
  • State-Approved Institutions (mostly technical/vocational schools): 11.6%
  • WASC-Accredited Non-Public 4-Year Institutions:  69.1%

After considering the five-year graduation rates at California’s four-year institutions, especially the Cal State and technical/vocational schools, the 12% rate for community college students does not seem so dismal.

Well then, if CCC system students are not earning baccalaureate degrees within five years of entering the CCC system, what other goals might they be achieving?  The CCC system collects information from entering students about the goals they hope to achieve from attending community college. The question is asked as follows:

Enter up to three goals with the primary goal entered first, then the secondary goal, then the tertiary goal.

A:  Obtain an AA degree and transfer to a 4-year institution.

B:  Transfer to a 4-year institution without an AA degree.

C:  Obtain a two year associate's degree without transfer.

D:  Obtain a two year vocational degree without transfer.

E:  Earn a vocational certificate without transfer.

F:  Discover/formulate career interests, plans, goals.

G:  Prepare for a new career (acquire job skills).

H:  Advance in current job/career (update job skills).

I:  Maintain certificate or license (e.g. Nursing, Real Estate)

J:  Educational development (intellectual, cultural).

K:  Improve basic skills in English, reading or math.

L:  Complete credits for high school diploma or GED.

M:  Undecided on goal.

N  To move from noncredit coursework to credit coursework.

O  4 year college student taking courses to meet 4 year college requirements.

X:  Uncollected/unreported.

Y:  Not applicable.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to the students’ responses to this question.  However the options given suggests that students might have any number of valid reasons for enrolling in community college other than eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. As such, I would say that the fact that only a minority of CCC system entering students earn a bachelor’s degree within 5 certainly does not years mean the community colleges are not meeting their missions or otherwise providing a valuable service to the community.

Retention, Success, and Transfer Rates

The CCC system provides enrollment counts, retention rates (received outcomes for classes), and success rates (successfully passed classes) for students enrolled in each of 24 academic programs.  I decided to use this information to see how committed CCC system students are.

The following graph shows the information on enrollments, retention rates and success rates for reporting schools for each academic program, where the programs with the greatest number of students appear on the left and the programs with the fewest number of students appear on the right:

A further examination of the data (not presented here) shows that the retention and success rates have been stable at least since 2007.

What this information shows is that

  • There appear to be three general sizes of enrollment:
    • Programs with more than 200,000 students each (these 7 programs enroll 66% of all students)
    • Programs with 100,000 – 200,000 students each (these 9 programs enroll 30% of all students
    • Programs with less than 100,000 students (these 8 programs enroll 4% of all students)
  • The programs with the largest enrollments (Humanities, Social Sciences, Mathematics) have among the lowest retention and success rates.
  • The programs with medium enrollments tend to have more variable retention and success rates than programs with low enrollments

If students in the different academic programs all had similar abilities, resources, and motivation, then the retention and success rates would be similar across programs.  The fact that the different programs actually exhibit different retention and success rates suggests that, in contrast, students in the individual programs differ as to abilities, resources, and/or motivation.

One of the more important aspects of motivation is the value of earning an AA in a particular area.  The high success rates of students in Public and Protective Services, Health, and Commercial Services suggests that earning an AA in these areas might be more valuable than earning an AA in, say, Biology, Physics, or Psychology.

Now let’s look at a further breakdown of retention and success rates by (1) programs with high, medium, and low enrollments, and (2) age of students:

This finer breakdown of information confirms that programs success rates differ by size of enrollment (low, medium, high) and student age.  The data suggest that older students are somewhat more motivated than younger students.

Next, let’s look at transfer rates from CCC system schools to four-year institutions.  For the cohort year 2004 – 2005, the overall transfer rate within two years is 5.0%, within four years is 27.0%, and within seven years is 42.4%.

If I look at a finer breakdown of transfer rates by age group, I see that a significant minority of younger students transfer to four-year colleges within seven years, but that the transfer rates decrease with age group:

So if I consider that success rates increase with age group, but that transfer rates decrease with age group, the data suggest that of the students who enter the CCC system, the more successful younger students are more likely to pursue a four-year degree than the more successful older students.

What Are California Community Colleges Achieving?

Now I have some idea of the population community colleges are serving, divided into three basic groupings of non-high school graduates, high school graduates, and degree (AA and BA) holders.  The possible reasons each group might have for attending community college are as follows:

Non-HS Graduates (At Least 12% of Students)

  • K-12: Advanced pre-college education in preparation for college.
  • GED:  Obtain a GED
  • Job Skills:  Improve job/career prospects
  • Adult Education:  Obtain new knowledge purely for personal edification

HS Graduate (At Least 67% of Students)

  • AA:  Obtain an associates degree
  • Transfer to 4-Year College
  • Job Skills:  Improve job/career prospects
  • Adult Education:  Obtain new knowledge purely for personal edification

College Graduate (At Least 8% of Students)

  • Job Skills:  Improve job/career prospects
  • Adult Education:  Obtain new knowledge purely for personal edification

How successful are community colleges in facilitating their students’ goals?  It’s difficult to say.  To know for sure, I would have to have information on the ultimate disposition of the community college students for each of these groupings.  Unfortunately, I do not have this information.

What I can glean from the information provided is that

  • The CCC system is serving its community members at different capacities
  • For the cohort year 2004 – 2005, 42.4% of students transferred from CCC system schools to four-year institutions
  • For the 2009 – 2010 year, the State of California Community Colleges system awarded about 85,000 associates degrees across 115 schools.  If we take this as a percentage of the number of HS graduates in the second or later year of community colleges (about 1.8M), we get about a 25% degree rate.
  • 60 – 70% of 18-24 year old students successfully completed courses during the Fall of 2009, with success rates increasing with student age up to 70 – 80% success rates for the oldest students.

Based on success rates, I conclude that most students in the system are becoming more educated, in which case community colleges are providing a nontrivial amount of value to the community.

Based on transfer rates, I conclude that community colleges are facilitating the transition to four-year institutions for a significant portion of its students.

Based on associate degree awards, I conclude that community colleges are providing a nontrivial number of its students with two-year degrees.

While I cannot what level of successful the community colleges are achieving, I can say that they are definitely providing some position, yet uncertain amount of benefits to the community.  I can also say that it appears that community colleges are achieving their mission to offer opportunities for personal enrichment and lifelong learning.”


What Are the Socially Optimal Alternatives for Community Colleges?

According to budget data for the CCC system, student fee revenues cover only a very small portion (4 – 6%) of the total costs of running the schools.  The vast majority of funding comes from state apportionments (43 – 45%) and local property taxes (30 – 32%).

What this means is that raising tuition will not solve the bigger financial problems community colleges are facing, but it will impede their mission by decreasing accessibility.

Given increasing demand in the face of decreasing budgets, the community colleges must therefore decide which programs or students to cut back.  So which programs or students should they cut?

Community colleges provide social benefits to the communities they serve.  If forced to make cutbacks, they should figure out which of their offering provide the more value to the community and which provide less and target the cutbacks for the programs that are providing less social value.

One aspect of value is providing opportunities that students cannot obtain elsewhere.  This begs the question: What are the alternatives available to each of the various students groups?  Community colleges provide among the least-cost, most convenient alternatives to students in each group.  This suggests that one alternative is to decrease access to those who can afford to pay for alternatives, such as private tutoring.

From a social perspective, educating younger students generally provides more social value than does educating older students, since the younger students will have more time to benefit from the greater education.  In this sense, one alternative is to decrease access to older students.

Fairness might entail limiting the opportunity available to each student.  In this sense, one alternative is to decrease access to students who are lingering in the system.

Cost considerations might justify decreasing access to programs with smaller enrollments or higher costs of provision.

Efficiency considerations might entail decreasing offerings in areas with low student success rates.  On the other hand, these might be the problem areas (e.g., remedial education) precisely where students need the most access to be productive members of society.