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2008 Spotlight

Community College

Which Seniors Attend Community Colleges Right After High School?

Students' immediate educational plans, future educational expectations, and immediate enrollment

In both ELS and NELS, students were asked what their plans were right after high school and what they expected their highest level of educational attainment would be. The 2004 and 1992 seniors' responses provide perspective on the extent to which students—among those who intend to eventually get a bachelor's degree—start their postsecondary education at a community college. Their responses also can help clarify what percentage of students, who intend to go to a 4-year college or university when they are high school seniors, started out at a community college. Comparing students' expectations while seniors in high school with their expectations 2 years after enrolling in a community college may also provide some perspective on the extent to which students' experience in a community college raises or lowers their educational expectations.

When asked about their immediate plans after high school, 62 percent of 2004 seniors said they planned to attend a 4-year college or university after high school, and 22 percent said they planned to attend a 2-year college (see table SA-14). Among those who said they expected to attend a 4-year college or university, 13 percent actually enrolled in a community college in the fall (65 percent enrolled in a 4-year college or university) (see figure 17 and table SA-21).27

When asked about their expectations for their highest educational attainment, 35 percent of 2004 seniors said they expected to it to be a graduate degree, 37 percent said a bachelor's degree,28 and 15 percent said attending or completing 2-year college (see table SA-14). Among those who expected their highest educational attainment to be a graduate degree, 14 percent enrolled in a community college in the fall (see table SA-21), while among those who expected it to be a bachelor's degree, 22 percent did so. Among those who said they expected their highest educational attainment to be attending or completing 2-year college, 26 percent enrolled in a community college (and 5 percent in a 4-year college or university).29

These two sets of statistics independently provide some context for the percentage of 2004 seniors who enrolled immediately at a community college yet intended to earn more than an associate's degree. However, independently they do not reveal what percentage of these immediate enrollees—i.e., immediate community college enrollees who sought to attain a bachelor's degree or higher—actually enrolled because they planned on using the community college as a “stepping stone” versus the percentage who did so because their plans to attend a 4-year institution did not come to fruition. However, if one examines these immediate enrollees' post-high school plans, accounting for their educational expectations, one can get a sense of the percentage of 2004 seniors who deliberately chose to use community colleges as a stepping stone versus the percentage whose initial post-high school plans did not include a community college.30 Among the 551,000 seniors who enrolled immediately in community colleges in the fall of 2004,

  • about 28 percent had said as seniors that they (1) planned on attending a 2-year institution immediately after high school and (2) expected to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, while

  • about 39 percent had said as seniors that they (1) planned on attending a 4-year institution immediately after high school and (2) expected to earn a bachelor's degree or higher (data not shown).

(Such estimates for 1992 seniors are not possible because NELS only asked seniors if they intended to pursue some postsecondary education, not what level of postsecondary institution they planned to attend.)

Students' educational expectations, of course, are not fixed and many personal, social, economic, and institutional factors can change them. However, examining changes in the educational expectations of seniors who enrolled immediately after high school in a community college provides some sense of the extent to which this experience was associated with higher or lower educational expectations.

Among the 2004 seniors who had said that their highest level of educational attainment would be to attend or complete a 2-year college and who actually enrolled immediately in a community college, 47 percent had higher educational expectations when asked again in 2006 (36 percent expected to attend a 4-year college or university, and 11 percent expected to obtain a graduate degree); 14 percent said they no longer knew what their highest educational attainment would be (see table 3).31 Among those who had said as seniors that their highest educational attainment would be to attend or complete a 4-year college and who actually enrolled immediately in a 2-year college, 79 percent still expected to earn a bachelor's degree when asked again in 2006 (14 percent had lowered their expectation to attending a 2-year college, and 7 percent no longer knew what their highest level of educational attainment would be).32 Among those who had said as seniors that their highest educational attainment would be a graduate degree and who actually enrolled immediately in a 2-year college, 54 percent still expected to earn a graduate degree when asked again in 2006 what their highest educational attainment would be (32 percent had lowered their expectation to attending or completing a 4-year college, 8 percent had lowered it to attending a 2-year college, and 5 percent no longer knew what their highest educational attainment would be).

Comparing these percentages with those for 1992 seniors' expectations in 1994, reveals no measurable differences in the percentages of 2004 and 1992 immediate community college enrollees who raised their educational expectations after 2 years. However, a smaller percentage of 2004 than 1992 immediate community college enrollees who as seniors said that their highest educational attainment would be a bachelor's degree lowered their educational expectations after 2 years (14 vs. 18 percent). In addition, a greater percentage of 2004 than 1992 immediate community college enrollees who as seniors said that their highest educational attainment would be a graduate degree still had this expectation when asked 2 years later (54 vs. 43 percent).

In sum, these data suggest that about two-thirds of 2004 seniors who enrolled immediately in a community college did so with the intention of pursuing a bachelor's degree or higher: 28 percent deliberately using the community college as a stepping stone and 39 percent revising their postsecondary education plans and starting at a community college. The other one-third of these seniors who enrolled in a community college did so with no declared intention of pursuing any education higher than an associate's degree; however, by 2006, almost 47 percent of them had raised their educational expectations to at least attend or complete a 4-year college.33

Expectations, of course, are not a guarantee of achievement. Thus, this analysis now turns to examine the percentage of community college students who persist in their studies or attain a degree or certificate. For this analysis, data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study are used to provide a broader picture of students' short-term persistence or attainment in community colleges.


27 No comparison with the responses of seniors from 1992 is possible because 1992 seniors were only asked if they intended to go on for some postsecondary education, not what level of postsecondary institution they planned to attend. (back to text)

28 Includes a small percentage of students who said they expected their highest educational attainment to be above a 2-year degree but less than a bachelor's degree. (back to text)

29 Comparing these percentages with those for 1992 seniors' expectations and their actual enrollment, no differences were detected except for the percentage of seniors who expected their highest educational attainment would be to attend or complete 2-year college: a smaller percentage of 1992 seniors than 2004 seniors who reported this expectation actually enrolled in a community college immediately after high school (13 vs. 26 percent) (see tables SA-23 and SA-21). (back to text)

30 One can only get a sense of these percentages because there is no way to determine what these immediate enrollees actually intended. (back to text)

31 For the percentage distributions of 2004 seniors and immediate enrollees by educational expectations, see tables SA-21 and SA-22. For the comparable percentages for 1992 and immediate enrollees, see tables SA-23 and SA-24. (back to text)

32 This 79 percent includes both students whose highest educational attainment expectations had not changed as well as students who had raised their expectations from a bachelor's degree to a graduate degree. (back to text)

33 This group includes 8 percent of 2004 immediate community college enrollees who responded “don't know” when asked as seniors what they expected their highest educational attainment to be. (back to text)

Figures and Tables

Figure 17: Percentage of 2004 seniors who enrolled immediately in a community college or a 4–year postsecondary institution in fall 2004, by their reported post–high school educational plans: 2004

Table 3: Percentage distribution of 2004 and 1992 seniors who enrolled immediately after high school in a community college, by their educational plans and expectations as seniors and 2 years later

Table SA-14:Percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort, by immediate postsecondary enrollment status and selected characteristics: 2004

Table SA-21: Percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort, by immediate and delayed postsecondary enrollment status, control and type of institution, and educational plans and expectations: 2004 and 2006

Table SA-22: Percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort who enrolled immediately after high school in a postsecondary institution, by control and type of institution and educational plans and expectations: 2004

Table SA-23: Percentage distribution of the spring 1992 12th–grade cohort, by immediate and delayed postsecondary enrollment status, control and type of institution, and educational plans and expectations: 1992 and 1994

Table SA-24: Percentage distribution of the spring 1992 12th–grade cohort who enrolled immediately after high school in a postsecondary institution, by control and type of institution and educational plans and expectations: 1992

Table S3: Standard errors for table 3: Percentage distribution of 2004 and 1992 seniors who enrolled immediately after high school in a community college, by their educational plans and expectations as seniors and 2 years later

Table SSA-14: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort, by immediate postsecondary enrollment status and selected characteristics: 2004

Table SSA-21: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort, by immediate and delayed postsecondary enrollment status, control and type of institution, and educational plans and expectations: 2004 and 2006

Table SSA-22: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of the spring 2004 12th–grade cohort who enrolled immediately after high school in a postsecondary institution, by control and type of institution and educational plans and expectations: 2004

Table SSA-23: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of the spring 1992 12th–grade cohort, by immediate and delayed postsecondary enrollment status, control and type of institution, and educational plans and expectations: 1992 and 1994

Table SSA-24: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of the spring 1992 12th–grade cohort who enrolled immediately after high school in a postsecondary institution, by control and type of institution and educational plans and expectations: 1992

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