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2008 Spotlight

Community College

Section 2. Student Characteristics

Community college students are a diverse group who report various reasons for going to a community college. In 2003–04, nearly 40 percent of community college students were dependent students (i.e., under 24 years old and not independent financially from their parents), 26 percent were 24 years old or older and financially independent from their parents, 20 percent were independent and married with children, and 15 percent were independent, single parents (Horn and Nevill 2006, table 2).15 That same year, when asked to identify one or more reasons why they enrolled in a community college, over one-third of community college students reported that they enrolled in order to transfer to a 4-year college, 43 percent reported seeking an associate’s degree, 17 percent reported seeking a certificate, 42 percent reported seeking job skills, and 46 percent reported enrolling for personal interest (see figure 11). In addition, compared with students attending 4-year colleges and universities in 2003–04, higher proportions of community college students were older, female, and from low-income families, and lower proportions were White (Horn and Nevill 2006, p. 9).

In 2003–04, the median age of community college students (24 years old) was higher than the median age for both public and private not-for-profit 4-year college students (21 years old) (see table SA-9). Thirty-five percent of community college students were 30 years old or older (compared with 13 percent at public 4-year institutions and 21 percent at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions), 18 percent were between 24 and 29 years old (compared with 16 percent at public 4-year institutions and 12 percent at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions), and 38 percent were between 19 and 23 years old (compared with 60 percent at public 4-year institutions and 55 percent at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions).

Community college students also differed from their peers enrolled in public and private 4-year institutions in terms of sex, race/ethnicity, and income level. About 59 percent of community college students in 2003–04 were female, a greater percentage than at public 4-year institutions (54 percent) and at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions (56 percent). The majority of community college students were White in 2003–04, but Black and Hispanic students made up a larger percentage of the student body in community colleges than in public 4-year institutions: 15 percent of community college students were Black, and 14 percent were Hispanic (see table SA-9). In comparison, 10 percent of students at public 4-year institutions were Black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. The percentage of students at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions who were Black was not measurably different from that at community colleges, but the percentage of Hispanics (12 percent) was smaller. When incomes for community college students are compared with poverty thresholds, 26 percent of community college students were in the lowest income level in 2003–04, compared with 20 percent of students in public and private not-for-profit 4-year institutions (Horn and Nevill 2006, table 2).16

Among community college students, general levels of commitment to completing a formal degree program also varied. A 2006 NCES study using NPSAS:04 data classified 2003–04 community college students into three commitment levels: “more committed,” “less committed,” and “not committed” (Horn and Nevill 2006, p. 19). For this analysis, a student’s level of commitment was based on three factors: enrollment in a formal degree or transfer program; intensity of attendance (full-time, less than full-time but at least half-time, less than half-time); and the student’s reason for enrolling in a community college. Community college students were classified as “more committed” if they (1) were enrolled in a formal transfer, associate’s degree, or certificate program; (2) attended at least half time; and (3) reported that they enrolled in order to transfer to a 4-year institution or to earn an associate’s degree or vocational certificate. Students were designated as “less committed” if they (1) enrolled in formal degree or transfer programs but did not report explicit intentions to complete a degree or transfer or (2) attended classes less than half time. Students were designated as “not committed” if they were not enrolled in a formal degree program (e.g., students who enrolled to take a course or two for personal enrichment). Applying this taxonomy, 49 percent of 2003–04 community college students were found to be “more committed,” 39 percent were “less committed,” and 12 percent were “not committed.”

Given the great diversity of community college students, their varying reasons for attending community colleges, and their different levels of commitment, any analysis of community college students—especially one that looks at their access to postsecondary education and their persistence and attainment once enrolled—is complicated. This special analysis attempts simply to address parts of these issues, particularly those that recent NCES data can inform. Thus, the rest of this section focuses on two subgroups of the entire community college student population: (1) students who enrolled immediately in community colleges after high school17 and (2) first-time freshmen in community colleges.

Part A of this section examines the immediate college enrollment patterns of high school seniors in 2004 and 1992 to understand which students go to a community college instead of a 4-year college or university immediately after high school. It also looks at how the educational expectations of these seniors changed after enrolling in a community college. Part B of this section examines persistence and attainment rates within a broader population of community college students—those who were freshmen for the first-time during the 2003–04 academic year—to see how many community college students persist in college or earn a degree or credential within 3 years. Limitations due to the relatively short follow-up periods in the longitudinal studies prevent a detailed discussion about transfer students. Transfers are included in these measures, but they are not identified as a separate category in the tables.


15 At public and private 4-year institutions in 2003–04, about 65 percent of undergraduates were dependent students (i.e., under 24 years old and not independent financially from their parents), 19 percent were 24 years or older and financially independent from their parents, 10 percent were independent and married with children, and 6 percent were independent, single parents (Horn and Nevill 2006, table 2). (back to text)

16 The lowest income level included all those in families at or below 125 percent of the 2002 poverty threshold. Established poverty thresholds are based on family income and family size. For more information on the poverty thresholds, see U.S. Department of Education (2008a), supplemental note 1. (back to text)

17 Students were considered as having enrolled “immediately” after high school if they enrolled before the end of December of their senior high school year. For more details on the definition of immediate enrollees and the assignment of their postsecondary enrollment status, see the Technical Notes. (back to text)

Figures and Tables

Figure 11: Percentage of community college students reporting various reasons for enrolling in a community college: Academic year 2003–04

Table SA-9: Percentage distribution of undergraduates, by control and type of institution and student characteristics: 2003–04

Figure S-11: Standard errors for figure 11: Percentage of community college students reporting various reasons for enrolling in a community college: Academic year 2003–04

Table SSA-9: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of undergraduates, by control and type of institution and student characteristics: 2003–04

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education