Study: Community College Dropouts Prove Costly

New reports look at how many students drop out of community colleges and how much that costs.

By + More

Fewer than 45 percent of college-ready students and just 20 percent of remedial students earn a certificate or degree in four years at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla. That's "nearly three times the rate" of similar urban community colleges and impressive enough to earn Valencia the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, awarded Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C. 

Federal, state, and local taxpayers are shelling out billions of dollars for community college dropouts, concludes an AIR report, The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges

The study looked at first-year, full-time students, who are the most likely to complete a degree, from 2004 to 2009. In every year, about one fifth neither enrolled for a second year nor transferred to a four-year college or university. 

[Read about the economic benefits of starting at community college.] 

Adding up state and local funding of community colleges and state and federal grants to students, the bill for early failures over the five years was almost $4 billion. Furthermore, annual spending on dropouts increased by more than 35 percent over the five years. 

"These students have paid tuition, borrowed money, and changed their lives in pursuit of a degree they will likely never earn," writes Mark Schneider, who wrote the report with Michelle Yin. 

Many community college students qualify for federal Pell Grants for low- and moderate-income students. Pell funding for first-year dropouts cost $110 million to $120 million early in the study. As grant funding soared, so did the cost of dropouts, reaching $180 million in the 2008–2009 academic year. 

[Get more information about paying for college.] 

While the study didn't look at part-time community college students, Complete College America's new report, Time is the Enemy, estimates that only 7.4 percent earn a two-year degree in four years and only 11.8 percent earn a one-year certificate within two years. 

One in four community college students enrolled in fall 2010 was not enrolled anywhere in the next semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracked students who transferred. 

College Measures's interactive map shows the cost of dropouts in each state. 

Many drop-outs will re-enroll later, responded David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges. And some students learn what they need in a semester or two and don't need a degree, he argued. 

Only degree-seeking students qualify for financial aid, encouraging students to declare they're working on a degree, even if they're not. College leaders believe this distorts the data. 

People do drop back into college, Schneider says. But in-and-out students rarely complete a degree or certificate. "Life happens," distracting students from their original goals. 

[See four things to know about community colleges.] 

What can be done? It's not enough to pump more money into a leaky system, the AIR researchers write. 

The first step, the AIR researchers say, is to make student retention a priority. More than 40 percent of community colleges responding to a 2010 ACT survey have no one responsible for coordinating retention efforts; more than half have no goals for first-year student retention

Redesigning schedules may also help. Complete College America recommends scheduling students for an intensive daily block of classes. CCA also suggests shorter academic terms, less time off between terms, and year-round scheduling, emulating the University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges. 

Successful students don't dally on their way to a degree, Time is the Enemy advises. To help students move quickly, the online Western Governors University gives credit for students' demonstrated competencies, as does Valencia College. 

Developmental mathematics has become a "burial ground for the aspirations" of many community college students, said Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, at a Carnegie Foundation webinar. The Carnegie Foundation's Statway is trying to redesign basic math education.