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2008 Spotlight

Community College


This special analysis draws upon a wide range of data sources collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to present a descriptive profile of community colleges in the United States (see exhibit A in the Technical Notes). Public 2-year postsecondary institutions, commonly known today as “community colleges,”1 primarily award associate's degrees and certificates and offer a wide range of services in their local communities. For example, besides offering academic coursework to earn a degree and occupational education or training, community colleges help students transfer to public 4-year postsecondary institutions with articulation agreements2 and provide many forms of noncredit activities, ranging from remedial coursework to community and support services (Cohen and Brawer 2003; Phillippe 2004; Vaughan 2006; Coley 2000). Furthermore, by virtue of their open admissions policies, they allow all individuals to register for courses. Consequently, community colleges offer educational opportunities to greater percentages of nontraditional students3 and minority students than do 4-year institutions (Horn and Nevill 2006, p. 9).

The special analysis describes both the institutional characteristics of community colleges and the characteristics of students who attend them. It also compares the characteristics of these institutions and the students who enroll in them with those of public and private 4-year colleges and universities. The special analysis is organized into two sections, each of which presents data from various sources and examines different questions. Section 1 describes the institutional characteristics of community colleges and addresses the following questions:

  • How have the number of community colleges and their enrollments changed over time?

  • How do state community college systems differ?

  • How much are tuition and fees at community colleges?

  • Who teaches at community colleges?

  • What are the admission criteria at community colleges?

Section 2 is subdivided into two parts. Part A focuses on the characteristics of students who enroll in community colleges immediately after high school. Using longitudinal data on the senior high school classes of 1992 and 2004, part A examines the following questions:

  • What are the characteristics of students who enroll in community colleges immediately after completing high school?

  • How do “immediate enrollees” in community colleges differ from those in public and private 4-year colleges and universities?

  • What percentage of immediate enrollees attend community college as a stepping stone to a higher degree?

  • Do the educational expectations of immediate enrollees change after enrolling in a community college?

Part B expands the analysis to look at a larger population of students than immediate enrollees: it considers students who enter postsecondary education at any time in their lives. Using longitudinal data from undergraduates who enrolled in a postsecondary institution for the first time during the 2003–04 academic year, part B addresses the following questions:

  • What percentage of beginning undergraduates at community colleges are still enrolled in college 3 years later?

  • Do community college students' persistence rates differ for full- and part-time students and by students' academic plans?

Neither Part A or B of section 2 provides a complete picture of the community college student body because the available data only allow us to look at immediate enrollees and first-time enrollees. In addition, community colleges serve students who take noncredit courses and training. The longitudinal studies used in section 2 of this report do not fully capture this population of learners.

As mentioned above, community colleges and their students are compared with public 4-year postsecondary institutions and their students throughout this special analysis. When possible, comparisons are also made with private not-for-profit 4-year institutions and their students; however, sometimes data for all private 4-year institutions are aggregated, and thus some comparisons are made with all private 4-year institutions. Additional information about less-than-2-year, private 2-year (both not-for-profit and for-profit), and private for-profit 4-year postsecondary institutions is presented in figures and supporting tables when possible.4

This special analysis relies on a combination of data from administrative records and student self-reports. When historical data are available, trends or historical comparisons are reported. Finally, it is important to note that, while many of the variables examined in this analysis are related to one another, the purpose of this special analysis is to provide descriptive information; thus, complex interactions and relationships have not been explored here.

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1 Historians of education trace the roots of community colleges back to institutions created in the early 20th century as “junior colleges,” the first of which was established in 1901 in Illinois. Since then, in response to labor markets and social change, the number, size, form, and curriculum of 2-year colleges have changed many times as have the names applied to them (e.g., “city college,” “technical institute,” and “branch college”). For a while in the 1950s and 1960s, “community college” referred to public 2-year institutions, while “junior college” referred to private ones. In recent years, however, “junior college” has fallen out of use, and the term “community college” has become ambiguous, sometimes referring to just public 2-year institutions and sometimes referring to both public and private ones. Throughout this special analysis, however, “community colleges” refers to public 2-year postsecondary institutions, regardless of the actual name of the institution. Private for-profit and not-for-profit 2-year institutions, sometimes referred to as trade or technical institutes, are not included as community colleges (Cohen and Brawer 2003, pp. 3–4; Brint and Karabel 1989, chapter 2; Phillippe 2004). (back to text)

2 Articulation agreements define how course credits are transferred between postsecondary institutions. (back to text)

3 The characteristics of “nontraditional” undergraduates include any or all of the following: delaying enrollment (i.e., not entering postsecondary education in the same calendar year as finishing high school); attending part time for at least part of the academic year; working full time while enrolled; being financially independent from one's parents; having dependents; or being a single parent. For more information on nontraditional students, see Choy (2002). (back to text)

4 Most sampled data have sample sizes that are too small to generate reliable statistics for fine-grained analysis of students and faculty at less-than-2-year, private 2-year (both not-for-profit and for-profit), and, sometimes, private for-profit 4-year postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, due to the amount of data shown in this special analysis' figures and supporting tables, it is not always possible for them to include breakouts for all categories of postsecondary institutions without compromising their readability, clarity, and efficiency. (back to text)