September 6, 2023

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Community colleges offer an array of advantages: a lower price tag, small classes, a pathway that can lead to a four-year university, plus a chance to learn new skills or earn a certificate that helps you get a job.

Yet community colleges are up against a host of challenges. They receive just half the per-student revenue of their four-year counterparts. The most under-resourced community colleges are often the ones that serve the greatest number of students facing systemic barriers. Like their four-year counterparts, community colleges nationwide are experiencing lagging enrollments and fewer students completing a degree.

Nevertheless, students clearly understand the value that community colleges offer. According to new Strada Education Foundation research, community college attendees who complete an associate degree or successfully transfer to a four-year institution value their education at rates comparable to or higher than recent bachelor’s degree completers. However, researchers found first-generation students rated the value of their community college education about 20 percentage points lower than those who are not first-generation students.  

This finding, among a host of insights offering students’ perceptions on value and goal fulfillment, are laid out in the the report, “The Value of Community Colleges: Recent Students’ Motivations and Outcomes,” and reveal students report value in a community college education beyond degree completion or transfer to a four-year institution. 

To gather the data contained in the report, Strada partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to administer the Strada Community College Outcomes survey to a nationally representative sample of 1,139 individuals who attended a community college within the past 10 years and were not currently enrolled.

“This research reinforces the essential value of community colleges for students, and points to areas of opportunity to help more students make the most of their community college experience,” said Dave Clayton, Strada senior vice president of research. “Student perspectives included in this work reveal that community colleges are delivering excellent value to many of their students, but that more needs to be done to connect college and career.”

Researchers asked former students about what motivated them to pursue a community college education. 

Sixty percent of former students indicated work advancement, such as increased earnings, career advancement, supporting self and family, and career-relevant skills, as an important motivator when enrolling in community college. The most frequently reported motivation, gaining skills to be successful at work, was cited by 74 percent of the recent students.

Although career advancement was cited most often as a motivator, it was the least likely goal to be attained. Just 49 percent of former students reported that their education helped them to achieve their desired career outcomes, such as gaining skills to be successful in work, to support self and family, and make more money.

“In my view, community colleges need to create more transparent connections between students’ goals, skills-based credentials, and employment opportunities,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and CEO of College Futures Foundation and former chancellor of the California Community Colleges, told Strada in an interview last week. “The information learners need is not as accessible as it should be when it comes to how to translate their interests and learning to job skills, especially when they do not complete a credential that has a much clearer connection to employment and upward mobility.”

Oakley will discuss the findings in a Strada webinar Sept. 7. Ruth Watkins, Strada president of postsecondary education, will moderate the panel, which also includes Pascale Charlot, managing director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute; Juan Salgadgo, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago; and Strada Managing Director of Research Nichole Torpey-Saboe.

When it came to making money, researchers found perceived value was tied to former students’ earnings, but only up to a certain point. Respondents earning less than the median of $48,000 were less likely to feel their education was worth the cost or helped them to achieve their goals, but those earning more than $48,000 reported no significant differences in their perception of value.

Overall, 70 percent of former students said they fulfilled their goals when it came to learning new things, 68 percent said they met their goals of becoming familiar with people, cultures, and ideas different than their own, and 67 percent of former students said their community college experience led to being a good role model.

The research also reaffirmed that degree completion and transfer rates mattered, noting that community college attendees who completed an associate degree or transferred to a four-year institution reported valuing their education at higher rates higher than those who did not complete a credential. 

While completion and transfer rates figured into students’ perceptions on the value of community college, only about 1 in 3 of the students participating in the study reported completing an associate degree, yet most said they accomplished what they set out to achieve when enrolling in community college. This finding suggests the way completion rates traditionally are captured at the national level is not a complete reflection of what community colleges contribute toward the completion of relevant credentials. 

“We hope that these findings will help provide useful insights for community colleges, students, policymakers and employers alike to ensure that students are able to take best advantage of the great opportunity that community colleges offer to help people achieve their educational and career goals,” Clayton said.