Good News But a Long Way to Go

October 2011

A recent report by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has garnered attention for its conclusion that educational attainment is increasing at community colleges for all key population groups, a sign that “investments made in a community college education, by individuals and by society as a whole, are paying off.” The report finds that while enrollment in community colleges grew by 65% over the past two decades, the number of certificates and degrees awarded by those colleges grew approximately twice that much (127%) over the same period. Further, the report emphasizes that the growth in awards to minority students outstripped that for white students.

Any evidence that rates of completion are improving at community colleges is welcome news, given the national priority to increase college completion and build a more competitive work force and economy.
Evidence of having narrowed the persistent racial gaps in college enrollment and completion is especially welcome. Table 1 displays the data for the basis of the conclusions drawn by AACC. The table shows that:

  • The number of certificates and degrees awarded grew faster than enrollment for white, black, and Hispanic students (the only exception is for certificates of more than two years awarded to Hispanic students).
  • Enrollment growth in community colleges was far higher among black students (137%) and Hispanic students (226%) than among white students (17%).
  • Growth in the numbers of certificates and degrees awarded was also considerably higher among black and Hispanic students than among white students.

All of this is indeed good news for state leaders and educators who have been working to increase college access and success for broad sectors of the population.

Despite these positive figures, some caution is warranted, for two reasons, in drawing broad conclusions about the “pay off” students and society are achieving or how much the gaps in attainment are narrowing:

  1. Much of the growth in awards is from short-term certificates, which may not provide much economic benefit to students
  2. While the growth rates in awards and enrollment were higher among minority students than among white students, the ratio of growth in awards to growth in enrollment was much lower for minority students, indicating that rates of success among minority populations have lagged those of white to a significant degree.
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