Community college offers an amazing return on value. Often among the most affordable, flexible, and accessible options on the higher education landscape, community colleges also have a great track record of delivering results. In fact, a recent article in Forbes reveals that of all students attending the most competitive four-year institutions, those who transferred from community colleges were the likeliest among their peers to graduate in six years or less.
And yet, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, community colleges have been hit especially hard by declining enrollment numbers. Evidence suggests that many community colleges are worth the time and money, but they are too often overlooked by prospective students and by the broader higher education ecosystem. The time is upon us to help community colleges along in their mission, to improve their visibility, and to improve pathways to further opportunity for community college students.
If you’re considering community college, jump to our look at the 50 Best Community Colleges of 2021.
Otherwise, read on for a closer look at community colleges, what they’re doing right, and how we can help them do even more to help students.
Community college enrollment is in a sharp decline because the pandemic has impacted the communities most served by two-year schools—low income families and communities of color—with particular severity.
According to National Student Clearinghouse released in the summer of 2021, enrollment in community colleges declined sharply in the wake of the pandemic. Overall enrollment “was down 9.5% this past spring, about 476,000 fewer students than in spring 2020.”
This troubling trend is evidence of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the demographics most frequently served by community college—low income families and non-white Americans. Historically, recessions and the resultant unemployment have actually produced surges in community college enrollment as applicants have sought shelter from inhospitable job markets. However, the pandemic produced a different trend.
Community college enrollment is in a sharp decline because the pandemic has impacted the communities most served by two-year schools—low income families and communities of color—with particular severity.”
For far too many students enduring this pandemic, and for the community colleges where they have pursued their degrees, the transition to online learning was difficult, frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling. Many schools lacked the resources to make this transition effectively, and many students lacked the access or workspace to continue learning remotely.
Moreover, two-thirds of all community college students come from households with incomes less than $50,000 per year. The household margin for financial difficulty is small, especially for those community college students who also work part-time to afford tuition. The joblessness and economic hardship wrought by the pandemic almost certainly made it all but impossible for a percentage of community college students to continue their pursuits.Back to Top
The benefits of attending community college are considerable, and include advantages such as affordability, accessibility, intimacy, flexibility, the opportunity to gain experience in college-level courses, and the ability to transfer to a public four-year school with limited bureaucratic hurdles.
The primary disadvantages of community college are that graduates will generally face a lower wage ceiling than those with four year degrees, that most community colleges do not offer access to a campus experience, and that you will only have the opportunity to earn a two-year degree.
Community college can land you a great entry-level job, though your ability to advance in your chosen field with a two-year degree will vary depending upon your profession. In some fields, a two-year degree will provide you with all the skills, knowledge, and credentials you’ll need to succeed and achieve a position of leadership. In other fields, you may be required to earn a four-year degree, or even a graduate degree, in order to advance past a certain tier in your field.
That said, the community college pathway is an excellent one in an array of technical and vocational areas where the associate is considered a qualifying credential. In fact, many community colleges are especially well oriented toward career readiness. According to governing.com,
Community colleges are valuable because they not only are affordable but also provide a path for first-generation college students to attend college and are sensitive to community workforce needs.
...the community college pathway is an excellent one in an array of technical and vocational areas where the associate is considered a qualifying credential.”
The article points out that 20 states host programs offering
tuition-free grants for students willing to enter into fields with skills shortages such as nursing, welding, commercial truck driving, automotive technology and computer technology. [Organizers] branded this program as a
poverty fighter, inviting faith-based institutions, community-based organizations, and labor and civil rights groups to assist in marketing it to their constituencies, and enrollment soared.
Getting into a community college typically requires the applicant to earn a high school diploma or GED, satisfy tuition and fees, and submit all requested application materials. This accessibility is the reason that community colleges have done such an effective job at courting students with limited financial means such as first-generation students, those from low-income families, and those from marginalized communities and populations.Back to Top
In order to help community colleges succeed in their mission, we have to take steps to offset the financial pressures facing those served most by community college, and we must ease the pathway between community college and other opportunities in higher education.
President Biden has proposed a plan that would make community college free to all who wish to go. This initiative would be a boon to those students considering community college, especially those currently struggling to balance work and education. Economic hardship is a major factor in the enrollment decline across the college landscape. Moreover, financial difficulties are among the most frequently cited reasons for college non-completion across all levels.
While community college may be comparatively more affordable, the cost is not covered fully by financial aid. For those who struggle to make ends meet, the cost of tuition and the demand that college courses place on time that might otherwise be spent working can both be difficult to sustain. Covering the cost of community college would dramatically reduce dropout numbers and produce a larger population of debt-free undergraduates with entry-level skills and credentials.
In order to help community colleges succeed in their mission, we have to take steps to offset the financial pressures facing those served most by community college, and we must ease the pathway between community college and other opportunities in higher education.”
In other words, by fueling these opportunities up front, we have the opportunity to significantly reduce the economic strain placed on the economy by those who default on student loans and those who lack the credentials for gainful employment or career advancement. Moreover, this would create an even greater incentive for those ultimately bound for four-year degree programs to begin this pursuit in a two-year institution. This too would help to slow the growing tide of student loan debt and consequent defaults.
But there is another critical step that we must consider taking in order to facilitate this latter opportunity. To reiterate a point offered here at the top, transfer students who come from two-year schools and ultimately enter the “most competitive” or “highly competitive colleges” have a 75% six-year graduation rate. According to Forbes, this compares favorably to a 73% rate for those who enroll directly out of high school and even more so against the 61% rate yielded by transfer students from other colleges.
And yet, only 14% of all students at America’s 100 most selective colleges are transfer students. Just 5% of those began their journey in community college. In other words, while this demographic performs exceptionally well on the second leg of the undergraduate journey, it also makes up an extremely small piece of the puzzle. Arguably, elite colleges—which do play a great part in just how costly college is and how much debt follows students into graduation—should take greater steps to recruit, court, and facilitate the transfer of community college graduates.
Most community colleges share transfer arrangements with public and state schools, easing the process by which credits and degrees are recognized and counted toward completion of a bachelor’s degree. It may be time for elite colleges to treat community colleges with the same regard, and to ease the pathway into greater opportunity for community college students—especially those who excel in their studies. Removing bureaucratic hurdles and dedicating greater resources to outreach could not only fuel greater interest in community college, but it could ultimately improve the ability of the most selective schools to serve low-income facilities and non-white students.
As the article in Forbes points out, this isn’t a call for charity, nor is it an affirmative action initiative. Statistics demonstrate that transferring community college graduates are especially well-suited to the transition and challenges posed by the course of education at selective schools. We must simply do a better job of connecting them with such opportunities.
If you are a community college student, or an aspiring associate with hopes of ultimately gaining access to a selective college, find out if an Elite School is Right For You.
Otherwise, jump right to our look at the 50 Best Community Colleges of 2021 and get started on your way to an affordable, accessible and flexible undergraduate degree.