It’s complicated


Sixty percent of former community college students cite work goals as the main reason they enrolled at a two-year college, but only about half of those individuals say their education helped to fulfill those goals, according to findings of a new survey from the Strada Education Foundation.

Six in 10 of 1,139 of individuals who attended a community college within the past 10 years and are not currently enrolled said work is why they enrolled, followed by personal (54%) and community-centered reasons (33%). In the work category, nearly three-fourths (74%) of respondents cited gaining skills to succeed in work as the main driver, followed by a three-way tie: supporting themselves and their family, advancing in their careers and earning more (69% for each one).

However, only about half of those individuals agreed that their education helped to fulfill their goals. Also, less than half reported developing the skills that proved to be the most strongly associated with their subsequent outcomes, such as critical thinking, communication or leadership.

Not everyone goes for a degree

The report shows the diverse goals of students attending community college. Nearly two-thirds (65%) said they aimed to complete a credential, such as an associate degree or certificate or to transfer to a four-year institution. One-third indicated they signed up for courses to gain skills, professional development or for personal interest, and not to gain a credential.

The report cautions about individuals’ responses, noting some participants may not want to admit to missing their objective, or they have changed their perspective on what they wanted from their education and report on those values as their original goals.

The report also observes the challenges that community colleges face in serving such diverse students with varying goals. Two-year colleges receive less than half the per-student revenue of their four-year counterparts while serving the greatest number of students facing system barriers, it says.

“Yet these institutions are vital to so many communities, enrolling the majority of students older than age 22, approximately half of Native American or Hispanic undergraduates, and more than a third of Black undergraduates,” the report says.

Changing targets

There are also differences when it comes to age of former students, according to the report. Among students age 24 and younger and those older than 24, about 40% in both groups reported that their goal was an associate degree, and one in three said they didn’t intend to complete any credential or transfer. However, those who attended at age 24 or younger were more likely to intend to transfer courses without completing an associate degree compared to older students. Meanwhile, older students were more likely to report pursuing a certificate without intending to complete an associate degree or transfer.

Researchers also examined attainments based on former students’ original goals. In its sample, only 29% of participants completed an associate degree. However, asking respondents to match their attainment with their initial goals paints a different picture: Among those who said they sought an associate degree, 58% completed their degree. Similarly, 60% of those who indicated that a certificate was their goal completed the credential.

“These data suggest that the way completion rates are traditionally captured at the national level is not a complete reflection of what community colleges actually contribute toward the completion of relevant credentials,” it says.

Demographic differences

Researchers also queried about participants on whether they felt their education helped them to achieve their goals and if their education was worth the cost. Not surprisingly, those who completed a credential or transferred tended to report positive experiences than those who didn’t or those who were earning less than $48,000 annually. 

Participants’ perceptions of the value of their education compared favorably to those of baccalaureate completers, the report says. Among all community college attendees who completed their highest level of education they had been seeking, 64% felt it was worth cost and 68% said it helped them achieve their goals. The report noted a 2022 survey of individuals who graduated from a four-year college in the past decade where 72% said their education helped them reach their goals and 63% agreed or strongly agreed it was worth the cost.

The report also looked at perceived value based on age and race/ethnicity. In terms of education being worth the cost and helping in achieving goals, more older students gave a favorable nod than younger students. When examining opinions based on race/ethnicity, white students had the highest rate of agreement (62% for worth of cost; 62% for achieve goals). Meanwhile, Hispanic or Latino respondents were the least likely to feel their education was worth the cost (51%), while former Black students gave the lowest rating in terms of their education helping them to achieve their goals (55%).

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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