What Do We Know About Community College Graduation Rates?

The world of community college received a lot of attention during the Obama Administration. Many in the academic world were concerned about the graduation rates these schools produced and how the numbers could be improved. But recent research shared in the Hechinger Report found that “Of the estimated one in four students who start at community colleges and then move on to four-year institutions, more than 60 percent ultimately graduate.”

What is the truth about community colleges and their graduation rates that college students considering them, or already enrolled, need to know?

Community college attendance

Unlike the typical four-year college or university, a wide variety of people at different stages of their lives typically comprise the students at a community college. I know that some are recent high school graduates, but there are also professionals who may need additional education for their jobs, as well as workers seeking retraining due to a layoff or other job challenge.

When studies have looked at community college graduation rates in the past, they have not always taken into account the true nature of the student body. If someone is a realtor, for example, taking a couple of classes to renew certification, are they considered a drop out because they don’t “graduate” from that community college? Most likely they are, according to the way the numbers are currently viewed.

Looking at graduation rates

One reason that community college graduation rates have caused such concern is because educators are worried these students are incurring debt, but not getting a degree. I know that my student loans make me grumpy enough, and if I didn’t have the degree to back them up, I can’t imagine how upsetting those monthly bills would be.

For instance, a typical degree is designed to take two years, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCEE) only 13 percent of community college students graduate in that time frame. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of all first-year college students in the U.S. are attending community colleges. Even after four years, only about 30 percent of community college students have graduated according to the NCEE. But the question remains—are these numbers telling us the truth about graduation rates?

Another factor to consider is whether or not the community college students are attending full time or part time. The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) did a study that showed full-time students had improved odds of graduation versus those students who were enrolled only part time.

The truth about the numbers

Is it possible that these graduation rates aren’t telling the whole story about community colleges? That is what some people are starting to say. For instance, it appears that many of the college students that are viewed as having “dropped out” of community college have in fact transferred to a four-year college or university. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider that as a failure on the part of the community college. If anything, that shows that community colleges are serving one of their goals: to prepare students for further education and career development.

Demographics is another factor that should be considered when looking at community college graduation rates. Many college students who enroll at a community college are either from low-income families or are the first in their families to attempt college, and with those circumstances can come financial and other strains that hinder someone’s ability to stay enrolled. The challenge is determining how many community college students fall into that category, and then finding ways to address their issues so they complete their degree or transfer to a four-year college.

If you attended or are attending community college, do you think it is the right choice and are you concerned about graduation rates? Let us know in the comments.

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