Community Colleges: Multiple Missions, Diverse Student Bodies, and a Range of Policy Solutions

By Jael Greene

The Urban Institute recently published a report that focused on the role community colleges play in postsecondary education. Though much is understood regarding their open admission policies and low tuition, not as much is known about the differences between individual institutions: their different missions and programs, their student demographics and financial structures, how they determine cost of attendance and their use of financial aid and student loans. The report examines the differences between institutions in hopes to guide future policymaking.  It also examines the use of guided academic pathways, transfer-friendly policies and developmental education across institutions.

Among the key points:

  • The demographics of community colleges tend to reflect their surrounding areas. When compared to other sectors of nonprofit higher education, community colleges enroll higher percentages of minorities, low-income students, females and first-generation students.
    • In 2013, less than half of all community college students across the country were white (down from 59% in 2007-08). 21% of community college students were Hispanic and 15% were Black.
    • Differences by state may better demonstrate how federal policies could impact community college students. For example, in California, which enrolls the largest portion of community college students 41% of community college students are Hispanic and only 29% are white.
  • Like other public institutions of higher education, community colleges are funded through a combination of tuition revenues and state appropriations.
    • In approximately half of all states, local funding plays a major part in financing community colleges. Alaska, California, New Mexico and Wyoming are among the states where tuition generates less than half as much funding as appropriations.
    • In contrast, tuition revenues in some states, like Vermont and New Hampshire, are approximately four times higher than appropriations.
    • In five additional states tuition revenues are more than double appropriations.
  • The average price for tuition and fees in the 2015-16 year was $3,430, but this varies greatly from institution to institution due to different financial structures.
    • In California, the average tuition was $1,420. By contrast, at the Community College of Vermont, the annual price was $7,530 for 2015-2016.
  • In addition to the differences in tuition, demographics and financing, community college programs and missions vary from state to state and from school to school.
    • Data from the Department of Education shows that the proportion of students pursuing general education or transfer degrees ranged from 27% in Georgia to 60% in Texas. 30% percent of Minnesota students were pursuing occupational or technical associate degrees compared with 8% of students in California.
    • Under current definitions of graduation rates by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), students who enroll in courses with no intention of obtaining a degree and students who transfer to four-year institutions prior to receiving a degree are all considered non-completers. Therefore, any success of these “drop-in” students is not captured by federal data.