Minding the Campus talks about community colleges increasing federal funding and size. It also discusses their diversity, missions, and graduation rates. That last was particularly jarring.
Only a tiny minority of the students who enroll in them manage to complete any of the programs they offer. Four-year colleges are notorious for their uninspiring completion rates (only about 54 percent of their students manage to graduate within six years), and at community colleges the graduation rate is at the abysmal level. At Tri-C, for example, it’s 6 percent within three years. During the spring of 2009, for example, Tri-C awarded a mere 1,676 two-year associate degrees for all three of its campuses, plus another 214 training certificates, which typically take a shorter time to earn. Tri-C’s nursing programs may be top-flight and virtually guarantee good jobs, but the programs produced only 229 nursing graduates in 2009 plus another 62 people with practical-nursing certificates. Only 672 Tri-C students graduated in 2009 with associate degrees in the arts and sciences, those stepping-stones to a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. Furthermore, the average time it takes to collect a two-year degree from Tri-C is 7.8 years. And of those who make it through to graduation, only 27 percent (according to students’ self-reporting) transfer to four-year colleges, even though Tri-C has transfer agreements with an array of public and private universities designed to make such moves easy. That’s not a bad percentage as transfers go. At Northern Virginia Community College only 14 percent of graduates move on to another institution, even though an arrangement at Northern Virginia guarantees students who complete an associate degree admission to their choice among 39 public and private universities in the state, including the prestigious University of Virginia.
Tri-C’s dismal graduation rate is just about average for community colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which studied students who had enrolled in community colleges as first-time freshmen during the academic year beginning in 2003 and following them through to the spring of 2006. Some 45 percent had dropped out completely within three years, compared with 16 to 17 percent of students at four-year colleges who drop out for good during that time. Community-college students who defined themselves as more motivated—planning to transfer to a four-year college, for example–did only marginally better, with a 39 percent dropout rate. About half of first-time community-college freshmen were still enrolled in either the college where they had started or in some other college three years later. That might not sound too bad—half the students still in school presumably still trying to finish—except that the very purpose of a degree or certificate is to prepare for a decent job (a community-college certificate alone is said to increase its holder’s earning power by 15 percent a year).
I know that both my sons attended community colleges as dual-credit students and neither one of them earned an associate’s. They were there to get the courses they need for their general education requirements for college.
It is sad that many people begin school and few people finish. That is not the fault of the community colleges though.