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2008 Spotlight

Community Colleges


Drawing upon data from various NCES surveys, this special analysis has provided a descriptive profile of community colleges in the United States, has examined the characteristics of seniors who enrolled immediately after high school in community colleges in fall 2004 and 1992, and has looked at the rates of postsecondary persistence and attainment by 2006 among students who began at a community college in 2003–04.

The defining institutional characteristics of community colleges described in this special analysis are as follows:

  • In 2006–07, there were 1,045 community colleges in the United States, enrolling 6.2 million students (or 35 percent of all postsecondary students enrolled that year).

  • Community colleges rely to a larger extent than 4-year institutions on part-time faculty and staff. In addition, compared with the faculty and staff at 4-year institutions, the main activity of a greater percentage of community college faculty and staff is teaching.

  • Average annual community college tuition and fees are less than half those at public 4-year colleges and universities and one-tenth those at private 4-year colleges and universities.

  • Some 95 percent of community colleges have an open admissions policy.

  • Community colleges enroll a diverse group of students, with various reasons for going to college, and have larger percentages of nontraditional, low-income, and minority students than 4-year colleges and universities.

The defining characteristics of high school seniors who go to a community college immediately after high school include the following:

  • Seniors from demographic groups with the lowest rates of immediate enrollment in a postsecondary institution—students from the lowest quarter of SES families and Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native students—had the highest rates of immediate enrollment in community colleges in 1992 and 2004.

  • Seniors who enrolled immediately in community colleges in 2004 spanned a broad range of academic achievement—including some students who were very well-qualified for college in terms of their performance on standardized tests and coursework completed. They included a greater percentage of well-prepared seniors than did the 1992 senior cohort and included many students with a high school GPA of C+ or above but who lacked mathematics coursework beyond algebra II, foreign language coursework beyond year 2, or both.

  • About two-thirds of 2004 seniors who enrolled immediately in a community college seem to have done so with the intention of pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher: as high school seniors, 28 percent had planned to use a community college as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree and 39 percent revised their original plans to attend a 4-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree by starting their postsecondary education at a community college.

  • One-third of 2004 seniors who enrolled immediately in a community college did so with no 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 start or complete a bachelor’s degree.

The short-term persistence or attainment rate of first-time community college students in 2003–04 was lower than that of first-time undergraduates in 4-year institutions, even when looking separately at “more committed” community college students.

  • Forty-five percent of students beginning at a community college in 2003–04 had left school without completing a degree or certificate program by 2006. Among the community college first-time freshmen who intended to transfer to a 4-year college, 39 percent had left school by 2006 without completing a degree or certificate program.

  • Sixteen percent of students beginning at a community college in 2003–04 had completed a degree or certificate program by 2006, while 40 percent had not completed a degree or certificate program but were still enrolled.

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National Center for Education Statistics -
U.S. Department of Education