Wednesday, February 9, 2011

You Can Get Into College, But Maybe Not Out (And That Might Be O.K.)

A recent study followed over 250,000 California community students for six years and found that only 30% completed a certificate, a degree or transferred to a four-year university within six years. The study seems to suggest that community colleges are failing, as few students are completing associates degrees or parlaying their credits into four-year bachelor degrees.

While this statistic is impressive and possibly indicative of deep problems within the community college system, it is no smoking gun that the community college system is failing. It is important to recognize that community colleges have a significantly different role than K-12 schools and four-year universities, a legitimate role that may be responsible for these numbers. The public expects all children to graduate from high school. And most undergrads enter four-year colleges with the goal of obtaining a degree and the skills to get a job. However, many students who enroll in community colleges have no intention of obtaining two-year associates degrees or transferring to four-year universities. Some enroll for the purpose of personal growth and enrichment, taking a few art, music, or language classes, for example. Others hope to improve their career or business opportunities and might take a few classes in business, economics, or design. For many people, the cost of a PE class at the local community college is far cheaper than a gym membership and gives them access to much of the same equipment, or yoga instructors, or coaches instead of personal trainers.

The study attempted to correct for this bias by only including “degree-seeking” students, as determined by their enrollment in more than six units during their first year. However, this is only an estimate and not a true measurement of who really enrolled intending to earn a degree. Six units is only two-three classes, not a very ambitious plan for someone seeking a degree and one that could easily be undertaken by a person seeking professional growth or personal growth.

Even if the statistic does only count degree-seekers, there are several explanations for the low completion rate that would not be the fault of the community colleges. For example, because community colleges are much more affordable than four-year universities, many people enroll because it is all they can afford. If they are already suffering financial insecurity and their financial situation worsens (or if improves with sudden employment), they may be forced to quit. Dropping out of a community college is easier than a four-year school, where one gives up a potentially much larger investment.

Another explanation that is worth considering is the educational backgrounds of the students. Many enroll in community college because they lack the grades to get into a four-year school. This may be due to poor literacy, weak study skills, lack of perseverance or low self-efficacy, any one of which would increase the chances of failure and dropping out.

The study found that black and Latino students failed to complete their community college programs at a slightly higher rate than white students: 70% of all degree-seeking students failed to complete their degree or certificate, while 75% of black students and 80% of Latino students failed to complete their degree or certificate. While this should be of particular concern, this particular ethnic achievement gap is a relatively small compared with K-12 graduation rates.

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