Community Colleges: An Important Variable in the College Success Equation

Did you know that community colleges across the U.S. enroll more undergraduates than any other post-secondary sector? Nationally, 42 percent of undergraduates in 2012-2013 were enrolled in community colleges. During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 10 states in which 50 percent or more of undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges, according to a research brief produced by RTI International for The Completion Arch. The Completion Arch is a web-based tool, launched by RTI International this fall, that captures data on the progress and success of community college students.

Clearly community colleges are a critical segment of the post-secondary landscape in the U.S. Yet according to data on The Completion Arch, in 2012 the national three-year graduation rate* was less than 25 percent. The Completion Arch argues that six-year completion rates – which capture students who attained a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree within six years after starting at a community college – is a better measure, since it captures students who are enrolled part-time or not enrolled continuously. That rate is slightly better, at 34 percent, but still (I would argue) much too low. (An additional 11 percent of students successfully transferred to a four-year institution, where they were either still enrolled or had left.)

The Completion Arch offers a tremendous amount of data on a state-by-state basis, which makes for really interesting browsing. I hadn’t realized until reading through the data that community colleges accounted for such a significant percentage of the country’s undergraduate enrollment – nor had I realized what variation there was in enrollment from state to state. Given what a significant role community colleges are clearly playing, it’s critical to reach a better understanding of how students enroll and progress toward graduation – or don’t! – in order to achieve our overarching goal of College Success. The Completion Arch seems like a much-needed way to increase transparency into this topic.

*Three years represents 150 percent of the “normal time” (i.e., two years) to graduation