Community Colleges Have a Completion Problem

Blog Post
Dec. 12, 2022

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges have faced unprecedented enrollment declines. These declines have been so large that community colleges across the country have implemented innovative reforms to try and bring students back to campus. But new data from the National Student Clearinghouse show that enrollment woes are not the only problem facing community colleges. Despite many efforts to help community college students complete their course of study or transfer to a four-year university, nationwide community college completion outcomes remain deeply inadequate.

Alarmingly, 57 percent of students who entered community college in 2016 had not completed any degree–either at that community college or elsewhere–within six years. While roughly 12 percent of students who entered community college in 2016 were still enrolled in some form of higher education in 2022, 45 percent of all students who started community college in 2016 neither completed a college program nor are still enrolled in college six-years later. This means that almost half of all students who enroll in community college do not complete any form of higher education program. Only 43 percent of students who entered community college in 2016 completed a college program by 2022, the lowest completion rate for any sector of higher education (see Figure 1).

Community college completion rates differ substantially by race and ethnicity. White and Asian students who started community college in 2016 were far more likely than Native American, Latinx, and Black students to complete college by 2022. Only 31 percent of Black students who started community college in 2016 completed a college program by 2022. This shamefully low completion rate for Black students is even worse when compared to the same rates for white and Asian students. More than 50 percent of white students, and 53 percent of Asian students, students who started community college in 2016 had completed a higher education program by 2022. While community colleges can play an important role in advancing educational equity, clearly these institutions are not able to disrupt systemic racism that exists throughout the U.S. education system.

While this data suggests community colleges need to drastically improve their ability to help students complete college programs, particularly Black, Latinx and Native American students, it's important to consider the limitations of community college completion rates. As open access institutions, community colleges serve students with different educational goals and interests. A substantial portion of community college students never intend to complete a degree or program of study, but rather want to take specific classes to improve a skill. For these students, which could include people who want to learn a foreign language or working adults who want to learn a specific career-related skill through one class, completing a college program is never a goal, yet their outcomes bring down community college completion rates.

With this caveat aside, the data is abundantly clear: community colleges have a completion problem that has barely improved over the past 15 years. For community colleges to realize their potential as avenues of economic mobility and educational equity, they need to ensure more of their students can access the economic benefits of college completion. To do this effectively:

Community Colleges Should Redesign Advising to Meet Student Needs

To help more students complete college programs, community colleges should redesign their advising services to better meet student needs. Research suggests that colleges can increase completion rates by more than 20 percent if they reform advising services to more effectively serve students. Innovative advising models like Student Success from Ozarks Technical Community College offer community colleges a blueprint to reform advising to ensure more students graduate or transfer to a four-year university.

Under the Student Success model, students develop a consistent relationship with a college navigator, whose sole job is to help manage barriers students face to academic and personal success. Students work with the same college navigator throughout their entire experience at Ozarks Tech, which allows navigators to build meaningful relationships with students and learn when to connect students with community resources specialists. Community resource specialists are specifically trained to connect students with resources that can help meet their basic needs. This model allows students to build trusting relationships with advisors, and has shown initial success in improving college retention and completion rates.

Community Colleges Need to Help Students Afford their Basic Needs

Students who cannot afford their basic needs like housing, food, transportation, and healthcare often struggle to complete college. To address basic needs insecurity, colleges should hire benefits navigators, who are trained professionals that help students access federal, state, and local public benefits programs, such as SNAP, housing assistance, and other resources that help address students’ basic needs. By hiring benefits navigators, colleges can make institutional commitments towards alleviating basic needs insecurity.

To supplement these actions, colleges should require student basic needs training for all faculty and staff to help ensure there is a campus-wide culture such that all faculty and staff understand, and support, their role in addressing students’ basic needs. These trainings could be designed and facilitated in conjunction with benefits navigators and may require additional state funding. Colleges should also review institutional policies relating to student basic needs and financial aid to ensure they are student centric.

Federal and State Governments Need to Fund these Efforts

While colleges need to work to improve completion rates, state and federal governments need to fund evidence-based practices to increase the number of community college students that complete higher education programs. By funding initiatives to reduce basic needs insecurity and provide students with relationship-based advising services, state and federal governments can improve community college completion rates.

If colleges and governments can rethink their approach to student advising and basic needs security, they can make meaningful strides towards improving community college completion rates. In doing so, colleges and governments can help advance educational equity and economic mobility.

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