Community College: The Unfinished Revolution
Although public two-year colleges have dramatically improved college access for large numbers of disadvantaged students, serious deficiencies in how they operate are limiting their value.
In the current debate about U.S. economic competitiveness and the need to provide better education for everyone, there is a new consensus that nearly all young people should attend college. Indeed, society’s ambitious college-for-all goal has had impressive success. More than 80% of high-school graduates enter higher education in the eight years after high school. Even more impressive, the racial gap in college enrollment has largely disappeared. Despite the continuing racial gap in high-school graduation, 83.5% of white high-school graduates attend college in the eight years after high school; the rates are only 3% lower for blacks and Hispanics, according to a 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Education.
Much of the progress has occurred in one institution: community colleges. These colleges have grown enormously, now enrolling nearly half of all college students and providing access for new groups of students. During the past 40 years, enrollment doubled in four-year colleges, but increased fivefold in public two-year community colleges.
However, community colleges have shockingly low degree-completion rates. A national survey found that of newly entering community college students planning to get a degree, only 34% complete any degree in the eight years after high school. In fact, many students leave with no new qualifications: no degrees and often no credits. For students who get no degree, college provides little or no labor market benefit, according to a recent study by David Marcotte and colleagues at Columbia University.
Given the nation’s increasing reliance on these institutions, there is an urgent need to figure out whether they are contributing to the serious problem of low degree-completion rates, and, if so, how educators and policymakers can solve this problem. It is not clear whether the problem is caused by deficiencies in community colleges or if it is related to deficiencies in the students attending these colleges. Nor is it clear how to improve outcomes. Our recent studies, which are summarized below, address both questions.
These questions arise because community colleges have evolved rapidly, with little clear design. Now that they enroll nearly half of all college students, a careful analysis of how they operate and of possible alternatives is long overdue. Our studies indicate some serious problems and suggest alternative procedures that might make them more effective. Many of these procedures can be implemented by community colleges themselves, but they require additional resources and policy support.
Degree-completion rates differ greatly at different types of colleges. Public two-year colleges have much lower overall completion rates than either public four-year colleges or private two-year colleges. However, to understand whether these differences are related to institutional influences, one must examine institutions that enroll comparable students. We used rigorous statistical methods first to examine the characteristics of students who attend different types of colleges and second to examine college effects on degree completion for comparable students.
We found that different college types enroll different students. Both public and private four-year colleges draw from the upper end of the grade-point average distribution, whereas public and private two-year colleges enroll more students with lower grades. Within the two-year sector, public and private two-year colleges have distributions that are not significantly different.
Using a 28-variable multivariate model, we find that students’ predicted propensity to attend public four-year colleges overlaps little with that for public two-year colleges. What this means in practical terms is that most students at two-year colleges would not be in college if two-year colleges did not exist. Because students at these colleges are not comparable, it does not make sense to ask how most students who attended a two-year college would have fared at a four-year college. Indeed, in this national sample, relatively few of the students are comparable and the comparable students are atypical.
However, students attending private and public two-year colleges have considerable overlap. This suggests that for most students at private two-year colleges, entering a public community college would have been a realistic alternative. Therefore, attainment-rate comparisons between these two types of institutions are meaningful.
Although private colleges charge $9,000 more per year in tuition on average, financial aid helps to close the gap. Whereas community colleges rarely assist students in getting financial aid, private two-year colleges assist every student. Combining federal and state grants can reduce or even eliminate the tuition-cost difference. In quantitative and qualitative analyses, we detect few differences in the kinds of students at the two types of college. Both serve large numbers of low-income and minority students who did poorly in high school and are looking for a second chance.
To examine college effects on degree completion for comparable students at these two types of two-year colleges, we matched private two-year college students with similar students in public two-year colleges, based on their propensity scores. For the matched students, the private college effect is calculated as the difference in attainment rates for those entering private versus public two-year colleges. We found that, compared to similar students who enter community colleges, those who enter private two-year colleges are 15% more likely to attain a degree (see Table 1).
Enrollment and Degree Attainment Rates by College Type (N = 7,360)
|College Type||% of TotalEnrollments||AttainmentRate|
|Private, 4-year. non-profit||19%||79%|
Note: Attainment rates refer to attainment of associate’s degree or higher by 2000 by first college attended for the high-school senior class of 1992.
Differences in organizational procedures
Two decades ago, private two-year colleges were typically trade schools, business schools, and technical training schools. Indeed, they were not colleges; they did not offer accredited degrees, and many made fraudulent claims. However, in the 1990s, federal regulations imposed stringent demands on these schools; 1,300 schools went out of business, and the others devoted great efforts to improving degree completion. Although some remain trade schools, others resemble colleges. Five percent became accredited to offer associate degrees similar to those in public two-year colleges, and some developed articulation agreements with four-year colleges. This is a very small sector, but it offers important lessons about alternative procedures.
Before our study, little was known about the inner workings of private two-year colleges. In After Admission: From College Access to College Success, coauthored by one of the authors of this article (Rosenbaum), college procedures and students’ experiences at seven community colleges and seven private two-year colleges in a Midwestern metropolitan area were compared. Key differences were discovered in the ways in which these institutions respond to their students’ needs. These differences are especially salient in their organizational procedures, which guide or fail to guide students through college and which may account for some of the differences in graduation rates.
A basic difference is the underlying assumptions that guide their actions. Community colleges assume that students have the know-how to direct their own progress, an assumption that is often faulty. Although students are assumed to possess well-developed plans, we found many students whose plans are vague or unrealistic. Although students are assumed to be highly motivated, we found that student efforts often depend on external incentives. Although students are assumed to be capable of making informed choices, of knowing their abilities and preferences, of understanding the full range of college and career alternatives, and of weighing the costs and benefits associated with different college programs, our analyses show that many students have great difficulty with such choices. We find that many students have poor information about remedial courses, course requirements, realistic timetables, degree options, and job payoffs. Finally, although students are assumed to possess the social skills and job-search skills to get appropriate jobs, many students do not.
In contrast, private two-year colleges design procedures that are not based on these assumptions. Rather than assume that students possess such skills and blame failures on individuals’ deficiencies, private two-year colleges reduce the need for such skills. In effect, these colleges shift the responsibility to the institution, devising procedures to help students succeed even if they lack the traditional social prerequisites of college. Below we outline some of the ways in which these private two-year colleges depart from traditional assumptions to serve new groups of students. These innovative procedures suggest potential reforms that might improve the dismal degree-completion rates of many community colleges and may be useful in other schools and colleges.
Information overload versus “package deal” programs. Community colleges allow students to explore broadly in liberal arts and to progress at their own pace, assuming that students have clear plans and can assess which classes will fulfill those plans. When students have information problems, community colleges respond by piling on more information: more brochures, more catalog pages, and more meetings. For students unfamiliar with college and inexperienced at handling large amounts of information, information overload can result. Moreover, in providing many options, community colleges also create complex pathways, dead ends, and few indications about which choices efficiently lead to concrete goals.
In contrast, private two-year colleges offer students a “package deal” plan for attaining an explicit career goal in a clear time frame. Just as travelers pick a destination and let travel agents arrange all flights, hotels, and activities, students rely on private two-year colleges to offer a structured program that alleviates the burden of collecting information and the risk of making mistakes. The colleges identify a few desirable occupations in high-demand fields, and for each, they create a well-designed curriculum to prepare students in the shortest time and with the lowest risk of failure. This strategy eliminates the problems of directionless exploration, unneeded courses, unexpected timetables, and labor market struggles that we found in community colleges.
Options also overwhelm institutions; community colleges have difficulty offering required courses in the semesters when students need them and during time slots that fit students’ schedules. In contrast, because each private two-year college program stipulates a specific set of courses, even small colleges can offer the necessary courses in the right term and every student can make steady progress. Courses are scheduled back-to-back to limit commuting, and they are scheduled in predetermined time slots so that schedules remain constant throughout the year. This structured curriculum makes information manageable: It reduces information needs, simplifies logistics, and increases clarity and confidence. Students’ progress is clear to students and counselors, which makes advising simple, and mistakes are avoided or easily discovered and corrected. If a third-term business student isn’t in a certain class on the first day, advisors contact the student immediately. Although some students may not need such structured programs, this option is valuable to students who are overwhelmed by navigating the complex college course system on their own and for whom certainty of timetable and completion are a high priority. Although we assume that students prefer flexibility, many community college students complain about the difficulties of taking required courses when they need them. Meanwhile, most students at private two-year colleges enjoy the dependability of course offerings.
Enhancing motivation with institutional procedures. Community colleges assume that students have the motivation to persevere through the many sacrifices—financial, personal, and academic—required to earn a college degree. However, motivation requires confidence in eventual rewards, and many community colleges inadvertently make it difficult for students to be certain about rewards.
For instance, community colleges go beyond the standard Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 course schedule to offer options for students to take classes in the early mornings, evenings, and weekends. Although well-intentioned, this flexibility often creates complexity, time conflicts, and uncertainty Students have difficulty coordinating work and childcare with these complex class schedules that may occur at any hour of any day and change every semester. They cannot anticipate when courses will be offered in future semesters or whether they can be coordinated with other duties. This uncertainty can decrease some students’ confidence in completing a degree on time.
Private two-year colleges take a different approach. Instead of assuming that students possess adequate motivation, these colleges devise procedures that improve students’ confidence about course-schedule demands. These colleges simplify and compress course schedules into discrete time blocks maintained all year long, which are easily anticipated and coordinated with other demands. When students commit to a program, they commit to certain time blocks, and they do not have to worry about unexpected time conflicts or unavailable courses.
Private two-year colleges also offer compressed terms, which further reduce uncertainties. Whereas community college students must anticipate possible competing obligations over a 14-week semester, private two-year colleges compress class hours into eight-week terms. If a family crisis or another interruption forces a student to withdraw from a term, which is fairly common for nontraditional students, private two-year college students lose only eight weeks of coursework, whereas community college students could lose 14. Whereas associate’s degrees typically take three to six years to complete at community colleges (because of the need to take remedial courses and to deal with course-scheduling difficulties), the same degrees typically take 18 months at some private two-year colleges. Although this requires more class hours per week and fewer vacation weeks per year, shorter timetables reduce the exposure to crises interrupting their schooling.
At these private two-year colleges, all students complete a sequence of compressed milestones. Even if they ultimately seek bachelor’s degrees, which can be completed in as little as 36 months, they first get a certificate (in 9 months) and an associate’s degree (in 18 months). In contrast, community colleges often discourage interim credentials, because some courses required for associate’s degrees do not count towards bachelor’s degrees.
Frequent milestones have both psychological and practical benefits. Psychologically, short-duration units make school seem less formidable, increasing a sense of mastery, which is also associated with increased motivation. Practically, they provide a quick sequence of payoffs, so students who do not reach their bachelor’s degree goals are not left empty-handed. For instance, we interviewed a student aspiring to a bachelor’s degree who became pregnant after 20 months at a private two-year college. Pregnancy forced her to drop out before completing a bachelor’s degree, but she had already earned an associate’s degree, which improved her job prospects and wages.
Many two-year college students face more challenges than the average college student, and motivation and confidence are even more important at these schools, given many students’ poor academic history and lack of college exposure. These students often need more certainty than many community colleges offer. In contrast, private two-year college procedures enhance motivation by helping students see the light at the end of the tunnel and understand the intervening steps to the degree.
Guiding choices, reducing mistakes. Analysts and educators often assume that students have enough information about college requirements to make appropriate choices on their own, and community college procedures reflect this assumption. Whenever budgets are cut, administrators focus on preserving instruction and make cuts in counseling. Unfortunately, we find that many students report difficulties in making choices, and they report making mistakes because of poor information, often not realizing their mistakes until it is too late. Given strong pressures to complete degrees quickly, many students are disappointed to discover that they chose the wrong courses to progress toward a degree or that an associate’s degree with fewer required remedial courses was available and could have been completed in less time.
Whereas community college students make many such mistakes, private two-year colleges use several organizational procedures to inform all students, guide their choices, and prevent errors. At the outset, admissions staff inform all students about the college’s few programs, their requirements, placement rates, expected salary, and working conditions, and they help students choose a program that fits their interests and achievement levels. Choice is reduced to a few options, each with high rates of degree completion and placement in high-demand skill-relevant jobs. Then, they must attend mandatory advising sessions throughout college. Such meetings are arranged by the counselors rather than the students, alleviating the stress placed on the students, many of whom may not initially feel comfortable initiating such frequent contact or may not recognize the value of these meetings. The schools also offer group advisory meetings, which give all students essential information at key points in the curriculum. These meetings also foster peer support when family support is lacking; students can share problems and solutions and become role models and sources of positive peer pressures. As extra assurance to avoid mistakes, these colleges have systematic student information systems that keep track of student attendance and performance and allow advisors to detect and correct mistakes quickly before they become serious. These and other procedures ensure that students make good choices, have adequate information, and do not get off track. Not surprisingly, students at these colleges are more confident that they understand college and program requirements and can complete a degree.
Beyond academic instruction: Teaching soft skills. When students enroll in two-year colleges, they often lack tools that are necessary to enter the labor market. One common deficiency is in “soft skills,” or professionally relevant workplace social skills. These skills include attendance and punctuality, self-presentation and communication skills, and other work habits. Although employers expect students to possess such skills, we found that many community college students lacked them. Community college faculty often recognize this problem, but the colleges encourage instructors to focus on academic rather than social instruction, and the colleges do not provide systematic soft-skill training outside the classroom.
Meanwhile, private two-year colleges offer mandatory advisory sessions and classes that provide all students with individual advice about their dress, demeanor, vocabulary, and oral communication skills. These colleges also set clear rules about attendance, punctuality, homework deadlines, and appropriate dress.
These soft skills may come automatically to students whose parents work in professional workplaces, but many students in two-year colleges do not have such experiences. Although soft skills are not part of the traditional college curriculum, students preparing to enter the working world need such skills, and two-year colleges can provide them.
Connecting graduates to jobs. In addition to preparing students for the workplace, colleges can play a major role in helping graduates find jobs. However, most colleges, including the community colleges in our study, assume that if they provide students with the right skills and credentials, students will find jobs on their own. Although they sometimes post job listings, send out transcripts, and offer general career counseling, they do little to connect students with jobs. Few resources and staff are devoted to such efforts, and what is offered is incomplete and unsystematic. Students are often not aware that the services exist. For middle-class students who can get advice and job leads from family and friends, these optional services may be sufficient, but many two-year college students do not have such connections and sometimes struggle to find suitable employment after graduation.
Private two-year colleges in our study recognize that their students need assistance in finding jobs and legitimizing themselves in the job market. These colleges play an active role in the labor market, making great efforts to enhance employers’ understanding and trust of the college and of students’ qualifications. They also work to improve students’ understanding of employers’ demands.
These colleges offer job-search preparation for students throughout college, including individual career advising, résumé and interview workshops, job fairs, and guaranteed placement assistance. Many of these activities are mandatory for students, and those that are not are strongly encouraged.
Meanwhile, to improve employers’ perceptions of the college and students, private two-year college staff assist all students in résumé preparation. They translate students’ courses into skills that employers recognize and value, and they advise students on how to sell these skills to employers in interviews. To further improve employers’ trust, these colleges also establish long-term personal relationships with employers to provide them with information about graduates’ qualifications. Trust is built because employers understand that placement staff would not jeopardize their future relationship by misrepresenting a dubious student. In turn, staff continue to send employers worthy candidates only if the employers consistently offer their graduates high-quality jobs. Such symbiotic relationships mirror those between elite prep schools and university admissions officers.
In addition to directing the best students to the best jobs, these colleges assist more marginal students. For these students, they find apprenticeships that might lead to permanent jobs, or they highlight hard-to-assess strengths that might not come through on a résumé or in an interview. This is especially useful for disadvantaged students who might not have the polished communication skills to sell themselves to an employer. Again, the colleges’ trusted relationships with employers smooth this process.
The job-placement services at these colleges have the potential to pay off in terms of real labor-market benefits for students after graduation. They can also have a more subtle effect on students during college. Many students are not confident that they can complete a degree and get a good job after college, which can reduce their effort and might lead to dropping out. We found that students who perceive that their college and teachers can help them get a job exert more effort in college and are more confident that they will complete a degree. Perceptions of job assistance are more common at private two-year colleges and might be related to these colleges’ improved completion rates. Although these positive perceptions of job contacts are less common in community colleges, they sometimes exist there; when they do exist, they have the same positive impact on students’ efforts and confidence.
We cannot be certain that the correlation between job-placement services and higher degree completion at private two-year colleges indicates causality, but many students report greater confidence and determination based on the schools’ contacts. These findings imply that student effort and confidence should not be taken for granted; rather, colleges are able to take actions that improve them.
Clearly, community colleges cannot totally emulate private two-year colleges. Community colleges serve many purposes and provide a wide diversity of offerings, including academic, transfer, and certificate programs, as well as basic skills, General Educational Development tests, and English as a second language courses. Moreover, they face different challenges than do private colleges, including severe budget constraints, which have grown worse over time. At the same time, private two-year colleges, even those offering accredited degrees, are not inherently better than community colleges, and we do not argue that all students should choose to attend these colleges instead of community colleges.
However, the dismal degree-completion rates in community colleges are a serious concern. Some observers have called for ending open admissions and remedial courses. These critics believe the problem is primarily academic and that by restricting admission only to students with strong academic skills, degree-completion rates will improve. However, this proposal is not likely to get support from Americans who strongly believe in preserving access to opportunity, especially at a time in which college has become increasingly important. Nor will it solve the problem completely because it ignores an important obstacle to degree completion: the complex procedures that make college progress difficult for many students, including well-qualified students. These obstacles do not arise from open admissions, and although they affect low-achieving students, they affect others as well.
Rather, our findings suggest several actions that have the potential to improve student outcomes that community colleges could adapt from private two-year colleges. Although community colleges cannot implement these procedures college-wide, they could implement them in a few highly structured programs available to those who seek clear choices, a focused curriculum, and timely completion. For others, exploration could remain an option, but it should be designed so that students can be confident of making dependable progress toward a degree.
To help students who have vague or unrealistic plans, community colleges could offer students several highly structured programs to attain explicit career goals within a distinct time frame. Such structured programs would reduce information mistakes by counselors, faculty, and students, while permitting colleges to offer required courses each term so that students can make dependable progress. Students should be counseled upon enrollment to decide whether such programs meet their personal needs and goals. Additionally, in large community college systems with several colleges in a relatively compact geographic area, specialization might be useful. Rather than each college offering structured programs in many areas, individual colleges could specialize in a few areas.
To improve students’ confidence and motivation, community colleges could take several further actions. Structured programs could offer clarity about the full costs and benefits of their program options. For all students, colleges can compress educational units into dependable time blocks, shorter terms, and a sequence of intervening short-term credentials (certificates and associate’s degrees on the way to bachelor’s degrees). Compressing the school day, the school week, the term, and vacations allows students to complete obligations more quickly and reduce the risks posed by outside demands and crises. Moreover, dependable schedules and stability from term to term also reduce outside pressures.
Community colleges could also adapt many private two-year college procedures to inform students, guide choices, and prevent mistakes. These procedures include intake advising for choosing programs, frequent mandatory advising, group advising, peer cohorts, and student information systems. Upon enrollment, community colleges currently assess students for assignment in remedial courses and selective programs. These assessments could have additional uses. For instance, advisors could use test results to help students choose among the multiple associate’s degree programs (associates of arts, associates of sciences, associates of applied sciences, and associates of general studies), which vary in difficulty and remedial requirements. Many students (and perhaps even counselors!) do not know about these degree options and the subtle differences among them. Providing this information along with assessments could help students understand their expected timetables and make appropriate choices.
Like private two-year colleges, community colleges could also shift some of the burden of collecting and interpreting information from students to advisors. Some advising (for example, for course selection and time management) can be done in group sessions rather than one-on-one sessions to save money, particularly if students are in similar programs or have similar goals. Mandatory frequent advising and student information systems, which closely monitor students’ progress or difficulties, would be somewhat more expensive for community colleges to implement but could have valuable benefits in keeping students on the right track and catching mistakes early. Peer cohorts could also serve some of the same purposes.
In the way of job preparation, community colleges could teach social skills and work habits more systematically. These skills are already systematically taught in health programs at community colleges and are sporadically taught in other programs by a few faculty members. Traditional conceptions of college are the primary obstacle to such instruction. Once administrators recognize this need among their students, they can offer support and encouragement for teachers to work these skills into existing classes. Additional resources are not necessarily required for such additions. For example, implementing mandatory attendance rules and dress codes costs virtually nothing; they simply require enforcement. Additionally, teachers could be encouraged to incorporate public speaking and group projects into existing courses to improve students’ communication skills.
Finally, community colleges could strengthen and systematize their employer relationships to improve student confidence and job outcomes. They could provide information to employers via trusted conduits, either by providing time for program chairs to work with employers or by employing special job-placement staff. As we have seen, community colleges already have many contacts with employers that are unsystematic and not used effectively. One approach would be to provide time and institutional rewards for faculty who develop these contacts; however, that approach may not reduce conflicting pressures on faculty or the variability and uncertainty across different programs. Alternatively, community colleges could assign these tasks to job-placement staff who create systematic dependable contacts for all students in all programs. Although high variability in contacts across programs and faculty may give rise to student doubts, institutional uniformity can inspire students’ confidence that their efforts will be worthwhile in the end.
Although one must be cautious about inferring causality, a detailed understanding of procedures sometimes leads to compelling causal inferences, even as it helps us understand how outcomes occur. When students experience more information problems with complex procedures than they do with simple ones, or when students express more confidence about job payoffs in colleges where they perceive useful employer contacts, causal inferences are hard to avoid.
As we have seen, schools are more than classrooms, and they implement procedures besides instruction. These procedures influence whether students persist and progress in college and make effective transitions from college to careers. Community colleges (and indeed all colleges) need to consider whether their procedures match students’ needs, especially for nontraditional students.
Designed to be responsive to community needs, community colleges have taken on a wide variety of programs serving many purposes. Our results suggest that offering multiple programs may also reduce program coherence and ultimate degree completion. Private colleges have pursued a different efficiency strategy: They provide coherent programs that lead to dependable progress and degree completion. Community colleges can emulate this model, but to do so, they must recognize the value of coherent programs that use these organizational procedures. Leaders may need to focus resources and perhaps even reject some initiatives that undermine coherence.
These organizational procedures will require additional resources to employ advisors, placement staff, and other programmatic support staff. Although taxpayers are rightly concerned about additional costs, these procedures have proven to be cost-effective in promoting degree completion, even in colleges concerned with profits. Community colleges have begun an impressive revolution that has dramatically improved college access for large numbers of disadvantaged students. To extend this unfinished revolution, new procedures are needed to ensure dependable degree progress and completion.
K. J. Dougherty, The Contradictory College: The Conflicting Origins, Impacts, and the Futures of the Community College (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994).
W. N. Grubb, Working in the Middle: Strengthening Education and Training for the Mid-Skilled Labor Force (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996).
James E. Rosenbaum, Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half (New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2001).
James E. Rosenbaum, Regina Deil-Amen, and Ann E. Person, After Admission: From College Access to College Success (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).
James E. Rosenbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University and author of Beyond College for All (Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2001), which was awarded the Waller Prize in Sociology. Julie Redline is research director of the High School Transitions study and Jennifer L. Stephan is a doctoral student in human development and social policy at Northwestern.