A community college has a bit of a split personality. One side of the college is full of students trying to take classes at a less expensive rate before transferring to a four-year school to finish up a bachelor’s degree. The other side is full of students working on the latest manufacturing robots, learning to cook or brushing up on their welding skills in a short time frame.
According to the American College Promise Act, community colleges are public colleges that primarily award two-year degrees. These institutions are known for accessibility — ease of admissions and affordability — and service to the community.
With more than 1,000 community colleges across the U.S. enrolling over 2 million students who comprise 46 percent of all undergraduates as of 2021 — often students older than traditional age and attending part-time — these colleges play a vital role in the overall higher education system. Located everywhere from urban centers to rural highways next to cornfields, the open access the community colleges provide means these schools are often the only chance for post-secondary education lots of people have. Community colleges not only enroll recent high school graduates, but are also among the most important paths to the American Dream since they provide second, third and fourth chances to people who may have dropped out of school, decided to switch careers or taken another route to higher education.
While some students head directly from high school to a community college, that doesn’t describe the majority. At most community colleges, the majority of students are part-time and older. Data from the American Association of Community Colleges shows in 2021, 65 percent of community college students were part-time and the average age was 28.
Reporters covering the community college beat will find a landscape ripe with topics, including the following, among others:
- Affordability: Community colleges were supposed to provide open access to the community. But as rising tuition has threatened that goal, a movement toward free community college has developed. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce provides a good primer on free college.
- Economic development: Community colleges are especially connected to your community’s economy. They provide training and other support for local businesses, and their enrollment rises and falls typically in contrast to the local unemployment rate, although that trend didn’t hold up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Quality: Nationally, just 30 percent of community college students graduate from what are supposed to be two-year programs within four years. And only about 30 percent of freshmen who start with a plan of transferring to a four-year school do so within six years. Reporters need to be careful in reporting these numbers since, for example, some students who successfully transfer out are counted as non-completers. But the high dropout rates raise serious questions about the quality of education and counseling services that community colleges provide. What is your college doing right? Or wrong? What impact are, say, budget cuts having on class sizes or the kinds of instructors or counselors who directly serve the students? Investigating the reasons behind a college’s successes (or failures) is an important watchdog journalism service.
Updated June 2021.