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Over the past 20 years, the percent increase in credentials awarded at community colleges has been twice the percent increase in enrollments, with minorities seeing triple-digit jumps in both, according to a new policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
The number of total credentials earned at community colleges increased 127 percent between 1989-90 and 2009-10, while enrollment increased 65 percent—an average annual increase of 6.3 percent and 3.25 percent, respectively, according to the brief.
When the data are split according to race and ethnicity, the figures are even more astounding. While whites saw a 90 percent increase in earned credentials over the 20-year period, blacks saw a 283 percent increase and Hispanics a 440 percent increase. At the same time, enrollments according to the race and ethnicity increased 17 percent, 137 percent and 226 percent, respectively.
The breakdown according to associate degrees and certificates followed a similar pattern, with minorities—especially Hispanics—making the greatest strides in completion.
“These data reinforce that the broad mission of the community college is not only appropriate but badly needed by the communities they serve,” said Christopher Mullin, author of the policy brief and AACC’s program director for policy analysis.
Stephen Rose, a research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce who reviewed the policy brief, agreed, adding that community colleges play a crucial role in preparing all populations to succeed in the workforce.
“Community colleges are underappreciated, but they are growing and obviously filling a need,” said Rose, who noted research from his center shows that 23 percent of individuals with community college degrees earn more than the median of students who have earned a bachelor’s of arts degree.
There’s still work to do
Despite the increases among minorities’ success in attaining credentials, education advocates noted that there’s still a racial/ethnic gap. Of the 1 million total community college credentials awarded in 2009-10, 659,911 were awarded to whites, 135,878 to blacks and 125,247 to Hispanics, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
The policy brief did not examine the specific reasons for the increases, but Mullin noted a likely variety of factors. The data indicate spikes during recessions, which is when enrollments and ensuing degree completions historically increase. Community colleges are also responding better to the demand for specific programs, Mullin noted. They are developing courses for sustainable jobs, such as careers in health care and technology, in addition to customized programs for employers.
Demographic changes over the 20-year period, such as increases in the number of blacks completing high school and the increase in the Hispanic population, have also helped to bump the numbers, Rose noted.
The study calls to attention other important elements for community colleges, said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, who has a community college research background. He said he was particularly drawn to the policy brief’s information on certificate attainment, which serves as a springboard for follow-up questions, such as whether certificates are the first step toward students’ earning a degree. He added it can prompt new research, such as whether certificate completers start by taking non-credit courses and eventually transition to taking credit courses, as he suspects.
“There isn’t much data on this, but it’s important for community colleges,” Jacobs said.
Tracking student transfers
The policy brief also examined the number of community college students transferring to other higher education institutions. The data studied illustrates the difficulty in accurately capturing students’ rate of transfer to various colleges, from for-profit institutions to four-year universities.
Community college advocates have argued that various data systems collect information on student transfers differently, which can significantly change how data is presented and interpreted. For example, data collected on 2003 transfer students through the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System—which tracks transfers using a three-year period—indicates a nearly 16 percent transfer rate. However, data collected on the same cohort through the federal Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) Longitudinal Study shows a rate that is nearly 30 percent. When the time period is extended to six years, the rate using BPS data jumps to nearly 51 percent.
A longer time period to track transfer rates and other indicators of success better captures how well community college students—who often balance work and family life with their education—are doing, according to community college supporters.
In addition, the policy brief noted that longitudinal data systems don’t track community college students’ prior education attainment, which helps to determine whether the courses they’ve selected have assisted them in reaching their goals, such as refining their skills or seeking a professional license. One in four two-year college students in 2007-08 have previously earned some type of postsecondary credential, according to the Education Department. In fact, the brief cites one biotech program at Montgomery College in Maryland where more than 40 percent of students have a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree.
Prepared for the next level
As noted in the report, community colleges were founded initially to provide a path to a bachelor’s degree, and studies indicate that is still the case for many students. The brief cites a 2005 report that shows 64 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients attended a community college.
“That’s an important figure for us,” Jacobs said. “It points out how individuals are making the transition from two-year to four-year colleges.”
Community colleges should take note of that number to make sure they are preparing those students who plan to go on to earn a baccalaureate as well as students who want to earn a associate degree or certificate and jump into the workforce.
The policy brief recognized several ongoing national, state and local efforts to continue to increase student success.Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s Community College Completion Corps focuses on informing students about the benefits of completing a college credential. The Virginia Community College System runs a robust online program to help students in the state make informed choices regarding courses for their selected career paths.
AACC has various partnerships and initiatives aimed at improving student success and developing better ways to gauge that success, such as the Voluntary Framework of Accountability. It is also leading the blue-ribbon 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, which is examining current and prospective challenges confronting two-year colleges. Its finding and recommendations will be released at the AACC annual convention in April.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges