April 8, 2016
The statistics from many community colleges are grim. Only about 39 percent of students who enter the country’s most accessible postsecondary institutions graduate within six years.
Community College Enrollment Statistics are Grim and Grimmer

A year ago, Meredith Kolodner of The Hechinger Report asked, “Why are graduation rates at community colleges so low?” She observed, “The statistics from many community colleges are grim. Only about 39 percent of students who enter the country’s most accessible postsecondary institutions graduate within six years.

And more recent data indicates that these grim community college enrollment statistics are getting grimmer.

Kolodner was looking at data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Signature Report 8, which was published in November 2014. Since then, the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse published Signature Report 10 in November 2015. It provides six-year outcomes for first-time degree-seeking students, including former dual enrollment students, who started in postsecondary education institutions in fall 2009. It also offers a look at the attainment rates for students who began their postsecondary education as the Great Recession was ending.

Signature Report 10 found the total completion rate for two-year starters, regardless of whether the completion occurred at a two-year or four-year institution, declined one percentage point, from 39.1 percent for the fall 2008 cohort to 38.1 percent for 2009 students. The decline was almost entirely among students completing at transfer institutions (0.9 percentage point drop).

And the bad news gets worse. In addition to examining the overall completion rates of students who started at two-year public institutions, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center also looked specifically at their completions at four-year institutions. This rate also continued its decline, falling another percentage point for the 2009 cohort after the one-point decline the researchers observed for 2008 students when compared to 2007. In total, 15.1 percent of two-year starters had completed a degree at a four-year institution by the end of the study period, down from 16.2 percent for the fall 2008 cohort. This decline occurred mostly in the completion rate of students who received their degree from a four-year institution without first obtaining a two-year degree.

Why has there been a continued decline in completion rates for students who started at two-year public institutions? According to Signature Report 10, “These students were part of the surge of increased enrollments that accompanied the Great Recession, arriving on campus at a time when institutions were already dealing with reduced public budget support.” It continues, “One result was that institutions were forced to increase tuition just as students and their families found themselves with diminished financial resources, leading to questions about growing levels of student debt and whether this might affect rates of degree completion.”

Although student attainment rates have gone from grim to grimmer, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says, “These results should not be taken as an indication that the considerable efforts to drive improvement in student outcomes at the institutional, state, and federal levels have been ineffective. Indeed, one might easily conclude that without them the declines could have been even worse for particular types of students or institutions, given the demographic and economic forces at play. In this spirit, we hope that the report helps practitioners and policymakers alike identify where opportunities for improvement may be greatest.”

Nevertheless, the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse adds, “This report’s findings do, however, reiterate the need for developing measures that capture the complexity of students’ postsecondary pathways. We have long known that these pathways increasingly involve student mobility across institutional and state lines, part‐time and mixed enrollment, a gender gap that varies by age, and entry into postsecondary institutions at a variety of different ages and life circumstances. Developing new measures of student success outcomes is essential if we are to inform and improve public and institutional policies in ways that acknowledge and respond to today’s student pathways.”

Looking forward, community college leaders will need to find ways to increase their attainment rates while also dealing with a decline in their enrollment rates. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the enrollment at two-year public institutions in fall 2015 was 5,906,419, down 2.4 percent from 6,052,069 in fall 2014, which was down 4.4 percent from 6,329,631 in fall 2013.

So, it’s no wonder that many community college leaders feel they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Are there solutions?

President Obama has called for the first two years of community college to be free for responsible students, helping students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost. And the Obama Administration’s America’s College Promise proposal would create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college. If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. 

A year ago, Kolodner asked Tom Bailey, the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as the director of the Community College Research Center (CCRC), what he thought of Obama’s proposal to make community colleges free. Bailey said he supported the idea, but added that it will have limited results if it’s not coupled with significant changes to the colleges themselves.

Bailey, who is coauthor, with Shanna Smith Jaggers and Davis Jenkins of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, told Kolodner, “When community colleges were first created, their goal was to open up postsecondary education to everyone, and they did that very well. They made it easy to enroll, and they offered many different courses and options. But it created a very complex system. There are lots of important decisions that need to be made and students are pretty much on their own. That’s why we call this the cafeteria college: There’s a lot of stuff there, but students end up with a lot of wheel-spinning. These are often students who don’t have parents or siblings who have gone to college, so you have a recipe for confusion, and people often get discouraged and fall away.”

Bailey also told Kolodner, “We need to pay much more attention to the college programs. They’re often designed course by course with no overall plan. The ‘defined pathway’ that we’re talking about would create a default program, which would lay out semester by semester the courses a student needs to complete a degree. It provides an easier way to understand sequence of courses. If you want to take other courses you can, but then you have to talk to somebody about that. It has to be part of a plan.”

The Advocate of Affordable College agrees. With community college enrollment statistics getting grimmer by the year, we need to find innovative ways to help students make better decisions and we also need to make sure that the courses they take are part of a “defined pathway.”

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)