September 19, 2023

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Believers in community colleges’ power to change lives and communities gathered this month for a webinar discussion about new Strada research into recent community college students’ perceptions of the value of their education.

“I think it’s important to know that these students still believe in the American dream,” Pascale Charlot, managing director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute, said during the webinar. “It may not be the same dream that existed 10, 20, 30 years ago, but that same sense of hope and optimism — that their lives can be changed by attending our institutions — is very real, and it comes with a significant amount of responsibility that we all should embrace. This report can help us do just that.”

Charlot, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, and Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, provided insights in a panel discussion hosted by Ruth Watkins, Strada president of postsecondary education. Strada Managing Director of Research Nichole Torpey-Saboe presented an overview of the report’s findings.

Strada undertook the project with guidance from leaders at Dallas Community College, Honolulu Community College, Ivy Tech Community College, Rio Salado Community College, and Northern Virginia Community College as they sought to better document the data available on the motivations and perceptions of value among community college students. This information did not exist at a nationally representative level in the way it does for alumni of four-year colleges and universities.

“We were finding, especially when working with our community college partners, that there’s really a gap in the existing data in terms of our understanding about the full experiences of community college students,” Torpey-Saboe said. “We know that they are diverse in their goals, from seeking degrees to certificates to transfer to four-year institutions, and that they have a wide range of motivations.”

In recognition of the diversity of community college students’ goals and experiences, rather than surveying only degree completers, the Strada Community College Outcomes survey was administered to a nationally representative sample of 1,139 individuals who attended a community college within the past 10 years and were not currently enrolled.

The report reinforces an understanding that community colleges serve a variety of important needs, and that the value provided to students should be measured in ways that include, yet go beyond, completion rates. Though only about 1 in 3 community college attendees in the study completed an associate degree, most reported achieving what they sought from their community college experience.

Some reported that a two-year degree was their goal, but they fell short, while others indicated they never had intended to complete an associate degree but had other goals for enrolling.

“Students are coming to a community college for all sorts of different reasons, and they aspire to different things, most of which are tied to economic mobility,” Oakley said during the webinar. “Whether it’s an associate degree, a credential, whether it’s just learning English as a new language so that they can get a job, we have to … begin to really value community colleges for what they do.”

Salgado pointed out that 72 percent of respondents completed the highest level of education they were seeking at community colleges. “In some ways, it validates what we hear and know from our students,” he said. “In other ways, it screams for more insight to understand that better.”

Similarly, 72 percent of recent community college students reported that their education helped them to achieve at least one of their important goals, and 63 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their education was worth the cost.

However, those perceptions of value differ across demographic groups, particularly among first-generation college students. Value perceptions of first-generation students are about 20 percentage points lower than those of students whose parents attended college. The differences in value perception persist for first-generation students despite the level of education they completed.

The panelists noted the importance of advising services at community colleges that can help students, particularly first-generation students, navigate the challenges of the college experience.

Salgado called out his institution’s partnership with One Million Degrees, a provider of wraparound support services to community college students that provides one coach for every 60 students, plus a corporate or civic mentor. “They really do make a difference for first-generation students and all students,” Salgado said.

The study included a notable comparison between bachelor’s degree holders and recent community college students: 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.

Similar to bachelor’s degree holders, recent community college students who develop essential skills such as critical thinking and leadership are more likely to earn more money and rate the value of their education more highly than those who don’t feel that their education helped them to develop these skills.