When Santos Enrique Camara arrived at Shoreline Community College in Washington state to study audio engineering, he quickly felt lost.
“It’s like a weird maze,” remembered Camara, who was 19 at the time and had finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average. “You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”
In high school, he said, “it’s like they’re all working to get you through.” But at a community college, “it’s all on you.”
Advocates for community colleges defend them as the underdogs of America’s higher education system, left to serve the students who need the most support but without the money required to provide it. Critics contend that this has become an excuse for poor success rates that are only getting worse and for the kind of faceless bureaucracies that ultimately prompted Camara to drop out after two semesters; he now works in a restaurant and plays in two bands.
“I seriously tried,” Camara said. “I gave it my all. But you’re sort of screwed from the get-go.”
With scant advising, many community college students spend time and money on courses that won’t transfer or that they don’t need. Though most intend to move on to get bachelor’s degrees, only a small fraction succeed; fewer than half earn any kind of a credential. Even if they do, a new survey finds that many employers don’t believe they’re ready for the workforce.
Now these failures are coming home to roost.
Even though community colleges are far cheaper than four-year schools —published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, with many states making community college free and President Joe Biden proposing free community college nationwide — consumers are abandoning them in droves.
“The reckoning is here,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Teachers College.)
Although the enrollment drop-off sped up during the Covid-19 pandemic, it started long before then. The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37 percent since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Those numbers would be even more grim if they didn’t include high school students taking dual-enrollment courses, who the colleges count in their enrollment but on whom they’re losing money, according to the CCRC. High school students now make up nearly a fifth of community college enrollment and at 31 community colleges, the majority of it.
Yet even as these colleges serve a significantly smaller number of students, their already low success rates have by at least one measure gotten worse.
Two-year community colleges have the worst completion rates of any kind of universities and colleges. Like Camara, nearly half of students drop out, within a year, of the community college where they started. Only slightly more than 40 percent finish within six years. That was up by just under 1 percentage point last year from the year before.
So long do some students churn through community colleges, it’s become a pop-culture punch line. “You can’t expel Britta,” went a joke in the sitcom “Community,” about a community college. “She’s been here six years. Three more and she’ll have her two-year degree.”
While four out of five students who begin at a community college say they plan to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six of them actually manages to do it. That’s down by nearly 15 percent since 2020, according to the clearinghouse.
“When we talk about transfer students, I just want to cry. And the sad thing is, they blame themselves,” said Jenkins.
Because of an “underinvestment” in advising, for example, community college students in California who transfer to four-year universities end up taking an average of 26 more credits than they need in a process that is “far more difficult and complex than it needs to be,” the Campaign for College Opportunity found.
“You’re not helping students see a path,” said Jenkins. “You’re not providing a well-structured, intentionally designed and delivered program that leads to family-sustaining wages. You’re still in the main being a course supermarket.”
These frustrated wanderers include a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic students. Half of all Hispanic and 40 percent of all Black students in higher education are enrolled at community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges, or AACC, says.
“If we’re serious in this country about diversity, equity and inclusion, community colleges are where these students are learning,” said Martha Parham, the AACC’s senior vice president for public relations.
The large-scale spurning of community colleges has important implications for the national economy, which relies on graduates of those schools to fill many of the jobs in which there are already shortages, including as nurses, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians, vehicle mechanics and electrical linemen, and in fields including cybersecurity, information technology, construction, manufacturing, transportation and law enforcement.
In some of these areas, community college officials concede, the problem isn’t too little demand; it’s too much. Nursing programs, for example, have long waiting lists because of a lack of instructors and capacity.
When she asked student nurses at a hospital why they were going to a for-profit university, said Parham, they told her it was because the wait to get into the same program at the local community college was six months to a year.
For reasons like this, community colleges continue to lose prospective students to for-profit institutions, despite the fact that for-profits often have worse labor outcomes that can include lower job placement rates and postgraduate earnings and higher costs that lead to more debt.
Other factors are also contributing to the huge enrollment decline at community colleges. Strong demand in the job market for people without college educations has made it more attractive for many to go to work than to school. Thanks to so-called degree inflation, many jobs that do require a higher education now call for bachelor’s degrees where associate degrees or certificates were once sufficient, drawing students to four-year universities. And private, regional public and for-profit universities, facing enrollment crises of their own, are competing to steal away high school graduates who might be considering community college.
Many high school graduates are increasingly questioning the value of going to college at all. The proportion who enroll in the fall after they finish high school is down from a high of 70 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s the most recent period for which the figure is available.
“It’s like a weird maze. You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”
Santos Enrique Camara, who quit community college
But they are particularly rejecting community college. In Michigan, for instance, the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in community college fell more than three timesfaster from 2018 to 2021 than the proportion going to four-year universities, according to that state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.
There are 936 public community colleges in the United States, and each is different. Some are working to reverse these trends by changing their cultures.
Amarillo College in Texas, for example, used data to create a composite profile of the average student, which it calls Maria: first-generation, part time and Hispanic, and a mother of 1.2 children who is 27 and works two part-time jobs. The idea is to foster empathy for all students among everyone from faculty members to cafeteria workers.
“Your first and foremost job is to make sure ‘Maria’ is successful,” Parham said. “We’re definitely seeing those kinds of models across the country.”
It shouldn’t be that complicated, Jenkins said.
What community colleges need to do, he said, is “focus on students’ motivation, and help them plan and make sure their programs — the content and the delivery — enable very busy students in a relatively short amount of time and at a low cost to get out with a degree.”
That’s not the experience many students say they’ve had.
Megan Parish, who at 26 has been in and out of community college in Arkansas since 2016, said she waits two or three days to get answers from advisers. Hearing back from the financial aid office, she said, can take a month. “I’ve had to go out of my way to find people, and if they didn’t know the answer, they would send me to somebody else, usually by email.”
Oryanan Lewis doesn’t have that kind of time. Lewis, 20, is in her second year at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Alabama, where she is pursuing a degree in medical assisting. And she’s already behind.
Lewis has the autoimmune disease lupus and thought she’d get more personal attention at a smaller school than at a four-year university; Chattahoochee has about 1,600 students. But she said she didn’t receive the help she needed until her illness had almost derailed her degree.
“It was just like I was in a place by myself,” she said of how the college failed to respond when, two months into her first semester, she got sick — even when she reached out for support and stopped logging into the system that was supposed to track her progress. She ended up failing three classes and was put on academic probation.
Only then did she hear from an intervention program.
“I’m ready for this to be over with,” said Lewis. “I feel like they should talk to their students more. Because a person can have a whole lot going on.”
Community college students’ lives “don’t fit into these nice, neat little boxes,” said Darla Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges.
“What I’m hearing from students is, ‘This system is not built for us,’ ” said Cooper. “It has to do with everything, outside and inside the classroom: When are classes scheduled? When are services open? We talk a lot about meeting students where they are, but are we? If we were doing that, things would look a lot different.”
Older students at community colleges are as ill-served as traditional-aged ones, Jenkins said; they need rolling start dates, classes at night and on the weekends and accelerated programs.
“Community colleges don’t treat adults well,” he said. “They don’t treat part-time students well, who are predominantly adults.”
David Hodges was one of those. Hodges, 25, enrolled at Essex County College in New Jersey, to move beyond the odd jobs he’d been working since high school, including seasonal gigs at Amazon and FedEx.
But he was stymied by red tape.
Hodges said he called and visited the school to try to get information about enrolling, but kept being told that he needed his mother’s tax information to get financial aid.
“I was 24. I told them that I’m an adult. I don’t live with my mother anymore. She lives in a different state.”
Finally, the college told him he needed to take remedial courses in writing and math, for which he paid $1,000 out of his own pocket.
Hodges, too, soon dropped out.
Employers, meanwhile, are “lukewarm” about the quality of community college students who do manage to graduate, according to a survey released in December by researchers at the Harvard Business School. Only about a quarter “strongly agree” that community colleges produce graduates who are ready to work, the survey found.*
Economic necessity and attention to diversity have prompted politicians, policymakers and employers to try to help address the ailing fortunes of community colleges.
Dell Technologies started a program in 2020 called AI for Workforce, which was joined by Intel in 2021 and helps engineering and technology students at community colleges get certificates or associate degrees in artificial intelligence.
Tesla started working in 2018 with community colleges to train students for certifications in automotive manufacturing and service; along with Panasonic, it began another partnership in January to provide apprenticeships in the electronic vehicle industry for community college students.
Initiatives like these are a way to diversify the workforce, Dell officials said at the time.
“We reevaluated our structure on the heels of [the 2020 killing of] George Floyd to determine what we were doing and what our answer was going to be,” said Robert Simmons, the company’s talent acquisition senior manager. “The solution was to expand our definition of what we consider to be recent graduate talent to include associate degrees, apprenticeships and certificate programs,” instead of just bachelor’s degrees.
Despite the splashy announcements when these programs began, it’s difficult to learn how well they’re working. Intel and Tesla did not respond when asked how many students have participated in and completed the programs, and Dell said it could not yet share those numbers. Maricopa Community Colleges, where the AI for Workforce program was piloted, did not respond when asked how many students were in it, how many have finished and where they’re working now.
The state of Michigan is trying to prod more people there to go to community colleges with its Michigan Reconnect program, which provides free community college tuition to residents 25 and older. More than 24,000 have enrolled through the program and 2,000 have completed a degree or a certificate, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called for further expanding it.
And in Texas, a commission has proposed tying an additional $600 million to $650 million in funding for community colleges over the next two years to the proportion of their students who graduate or transfer to a four-year university.
That’s the kind of money community colleges say they need, considering how much less funding they’re allotted, per student, than public four-year universities: $8,695, according to the Center for American Progress, compared to $17,540. Community colleges get less to spend, per student, than the average that the Census Bureau says is spent per student in kindergarten through grade 12.
Nearly half of students drop out, within a year, of the community college where they started. Only slightly more than 40 percent finish within even six years.
Nor can community colleges rely on the other streams of revenue that shore up their four-year counterparts, such as research grants and philanthropy. Research universities that responded to a survey reported that they raised an average of $121 million apiece last year, while public community colleges collected an average of $2.7 million each, according to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education — down 15 percent from the year before.
Yet community college students need more support than their better-prepared counterparts at four-year universities. Students from the lowest-income families who pursue degrees are more likely to begin at a community college than a four-year university, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. So close to the financial edge are many of them that the colleges are stretched to help them find food and housing, adding food pantries and emergency grants.
Twenty-nine percent of community college students are the first in their families to go to college, 15 percent are single parents and 68 percent work while in school. Twenty-nine percent say they’ve had trouble affording food and 14 percent affording housing, according to a survey by the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
Even if they had enough advisers, students like these often wouldn’t know the right questions to ask, said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and co-author of that study of employers.
“They do have ambition, but they’re worried about discussing it with anybody for fear they’re going to be told it’s unrealistic or a dumb idea,” he said. “And that just makes you want to cry.”
Community colleges that fail these students can’t just blame their comparatively smaller budgets, he said. “The lack of resources inside community colleges is a legitimate complaint. But a number of community colleges do extraordinarily well. So it’s not impossible.”
One higher education consultant, who asked not to be named when speaking about a sector from which she makes her living, was more blunt about the state of community colleges.
“We have let them off the hook for too long,” she said.
*Clarification: This paragraph has been updated to more clearly describe the Harvard Business School study’s findings on employer views of community college graduates.
Ellen Dennis, freelancing for The Seattle Times, Rebecca Griesbach of AL.com and Ira Porter of The Christian Science Monitor contributed reporting.
This story aboutcommunity collegeswas produced byThe Hechinger Report, as part of the series Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between Hechinger and Education Labs and journalists at The Associated Press, AL.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News in Texas, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. Sign up for Hechinger’shigher education newsletter.
Disadvantages of Community College
As mentioned above, community colleges usually don't offer on-campus housing. Additionally, meal plans aren't typically available. In some cases, there may be less access to gyms.
Personal issues, such as balancing work, paying expenses, and meeting the demands of family and friends all present obstacles for a large percentage of community college students who responded to our survey.Why community college students quit despite being almost finished? ›
Direct financial costs were the most common reasons for early exit from community colleges, even though the colleges are typically more affordable than four-year schools. Over half of the former students in our survey, 53%, said they left due to the cost of tuition and fees.Why do so many people drop out of community college? ›
Many community college students say they do not know what they need to do in order to graduate. They also say their academic advising is limited or impersonal. About 24% of former students stopped going to school in part because they were unsure about which courses to take next.What are three 3 struggles commonly faced by college students? ›
- Social anxiety, general anxiety, test anxiety, or panic attacks.
- Family expectations or problems.
- Depression, lack of energy or motivation, hopelessness, being overwhelmed, low self-esteem, homesickness, loneliness.
- Relationship difficulties (emotional and physical aspects of intimate relationships)
- Community College Courses are Easier. Community Colleges are often thought to be easier than courses at 4-year institutions, but this isn't the case. ...
- Professors Are Less Qualified. ...
- No One Successful Has Graduated From Community College. ...
- Community College Degrees Aren't As Valuable to an Employer.
One of the most common ways that college students struggle is with their academics. In higher education, there is often an increased demand for analytical and critical thinking, on top of the inherent need for students to learn new systems and processes at school.What are 5 challenges students face today? ›
- Living environments.
- Mental health and wellness.
Other Common Reasons
While financial issues are probably the most common reason for dropping out of college, every student has their own reasons. Some unfortunately have family issues, a lack of support, or unexpected medical problems that are beyond their control.
Many have turned to hourly jobs or careers that don't require a degree, while others have been deterred by high tuition and the prospect of student debt. What first looked like a pandemic blip has turned into a crisis.
A shocking 70% of California's community college students fail to graduate or transfer.Why do so many people drop out of college without a degree? ›
The strong jobs market and rising costs are some of the reasons given for dropping out of college. Some students say they can't afford tuition or regular living expenses, while others want to start a business.Why poor students drop out of college? ›
“The number one reason that low-income students drop out is financial. And often it's a little thing, that a middle- or higher-income family wouldn't even think twice about.” It's not that the students don't try to economize.What makes students drop out? ›
These occur when factors, such as financial worries, out-of-school employment, family needs, or even family changes, such as marriage or childbirth, pull students away from school.What is the biggest challenge as a student? ›
- Homesickness. One of the first challenges you may face in university is missing home. ...
- Transitioning to university life. ...
- Roommates. ...
- Effective studying. ...
- Time management. ...
- Budgeting. ...
- Relationships. ...
Academic pressure may begin to mount because of procrastination, difficulty of coursework, and lack of time. Stress exhaustion or depression may occur. Mid-term exams and term papers are all due at once. Roommate and social tensions may increase as all students are stressed.What's the biggest challenge today's students face? ›
There are several serious challenges facing students today. For all students, a serious challenge is learning responsible, caring behavior in the face of all the irresponsible behavior shown, and even promoted, by the media – television, radio, the Internet, and magazines.What are the pros and cons of a community college? ›
- Cost of Tuition. The most obvious reason that students attend community college is for the financial advantage. ...
- Flexible Schedule. ...
- Give students an opportunity to explore major options. ...
- Smaller Classes. ...
- Qualified Professors. ...
- Transitional. ...
- Limited Curriculum. ...
- Lighter Workload.
- You Likely Will Graduate With Student Loan Debt. ...
- High-Paying Jobs Aren't Guaranteed. ...
- It Can Take More Than Four Years to Graduate.
Attending college can have many positive and negative effects. A few negative effects are debt, partying, sexual assault, missing family and friends, and stress.
- It is not an option for a 4-year degree in most circumstances. ...
- The workloads are often lighter at a community college. ...
- It can be difficult to stay invested in the program. ...
- There is no campus life at most community colleges. ...
- It is usually paid for directly.
Example Community Problems: Adolescent pregnancy, access to clean drinking water, child abuse and neglect, crime, domestic violence, drug use, pollution, mismanagement of resources, lack of funding for schools and services, ethnic conflict, health disparities, HIV/ AIDS, hunger, inadequate emergency services, ...Why do college students feel lost? ›
Students feel lost because they realize that there are many more options than they thought, and they have no idea what to choose nor how to decide what to choose. Students care too much about others' opinions, and because there are so many opinions, they don't know what to do.Why do so many students fail college? ›
A surprisingly large number of college freshmen have extremely poor time-management skills, which can lead to more time spent partying than studying, which is the main cause of failing tests. All of these are causes of the students ultimately flunking out of college.What is the main cause of depression in college students? ›
A lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and not enough exercise are a recipe for depression among college students. The stress that comes with academia — including financial worries, pressure to get a good job after school, and failed relationships — is enough to force some students to leave college or worse.How do you overcome academic struggles? ›
- Manage your time. Invest in a daily planner and keep one calendar for assignments, exams and family events. ...
- Learn study skills. Ask questions and participate in class discussions. ...
- Seek academic advising. ...
- Manage your finances.
Not finishing homework, having trouble making friends, struggling in class. If these school concerns sound familiar, don't be alarmed. It's natural for all students to struggle some in school. But if your child is consistently facing the same issues, it's worth looking for ways to help him or her.How do you motivate your students? ›
- Become a role model for student interest. ...
- Get to know your students. ...
- Use examples freely. ...
- Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. ...
- Set realistic performance goals. ...
- Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. ...
- Be free with praise and constructive in criticism.
Academic difficulties and the family's economic needs are two of the most common reasons kids drop out of school.What is the college dropout crisis? ›
Among students at four-year colleges, two of every five do NOT complete their college degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate is only 64% for all students seeking bachelor's degrees.
Based on these numbers, the college dropout success rate is only at around 6%. There is no guarantee of financial success if one chooses to leave school and pursue an interest that could possibly be translated into a scalable business.Why is college not worth attending? ›
People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees.Do students regret going to college? ›
Despite wide differences in levels of regret when it comes to majors, the vast majority of respondents were glad they went to school. Only 9% of those who attended a public institution wish they had not gone to college, the Federal Reserve survey found.Why is getting into college harder now? ›
Together, these factors–the increases in selectivity, the focus on rankings, the intensified stress on test scores, the lack of clarity around each school's enrollment priorities–has made the college admissions landscape feel treacherous, littered with obstacles to potentially thwart applicants' aspirations.Why do people think community college is easier? ›
Personalized attention makes learning easier
The average community college has 25 to 35 students compared to a university class which may have anywhere from 150 to 300. This is a key reason why education is more engaging and personalized at community colleges.
Yes. Many students save money by attending community college for two years before transferring to a university to pursue a bachelor's degree.Are poorer people less likely to go to college? ›
It is well-known that the majority of college graduates come from affluent families. In general college attainment decreases as family income decreases.Can college dropouts get good jobs? ›
The top three jobs for college dropouts are auto mechanic, insurance agent, and photographer. Before dropping out of college it's important to consider if the job you are considering requires a degree or not.What degree has the highest dropout rate? ›
Students who major in computer science tend to have the highest dropout rate, followed by advertising and agriculture majors. College is a significant investment, and selecting the right major can aid in your success.Which student is most likely to leave without a degree? ›
Most college dropouts are between the ages of 35 and 64 years old. 37.1% of individuals aged 25 to 44 years have bachelor's degrees. First generation bachelor's degree-seekers have a dropout rate that is 23.5% higher than average.
38% of College Students Drop Out Because of Finances – How to Lower That Number. Bridging the gap between financial literacy and financial capability.What percentage of people Cannot afford college? ›
A college education is widely perceived as unaffordable for most Americans, with 77% of U.S. adults saying a college degree would be difficult for someone like them to afford. 82% of women said a college degree would be difficult to afford, compared with 73% of men.How much money is wasted from college dropouts? ›
A college dropout earns 35% less than a college graduate per annum. A valued $3.8 billion is lost each year as a result of college dropouts. 55% of college students struggle to find financial support for their studies. Consequently, 51% of college dropouts drop out because of the lack of money.Why do so many community college students drop out? ›
Students often leave college when they do not feel a strong connection to the school or its community. Of the former students we surveyed, 11% said they left in part because they did not have many friends on campus, while 8% said they did not feel welcome on campus.Do students regret dropping out? ›
WASHINGTON -- Most students who drop out of high school in the United States admit they made a mistake by quitting and some say they might have stayed if classes were more challenging, according to a report released today.Which students are most likely to drop out? ›
In four-year institutions, 56% of students tend to drop out after six years (What to Become, 2021). Students aged between 24-29 are most likely to drop out of four-year colleges, as 52.5% of them have already left without a degree (What to Become, 2021).What is one negative of going to a 2 year college? ›
You won't experience campus life at a community college.
That's because most of the local institutions don't have any students living on campus. Most enrollees in a two-year program are working jobs, sometimes full-time, and so they attend classes only when they need to be there.
Tony Vinson's Approach
Vinson measured five main domains of disadvantage - social distress, health, community safety, economic, and education (see Table 2) - and accessed data from a large range of sources, including the ABS, Centrelink, the Health Insurance Commission, as well as state and territory authorities.
- Cost of Tuition. The most obvious reason that students attend community college is for the financial advantage. ...
- Flexible Schedule. ...
- Give students an opportunity to explore major options. ...
- Smaller Classes. ...
- Qualified Professors. ...
- Transitional. ...
- Limited Curriculum. ...
- Lighter Workload.
|Pros of Attending College||Cons of Attending College|
|Higher earning potential||High cost|
|Access to more jobs||Opportunity cost of time spent not working|
|More learning opportunities||The availability of high-paying, no-degree jobs|
|Networking opportunities||Underemployed college graduates|
- Skipping the reading. ...
- Taking on way too much. ...
- Sticking to what you know. ...
- Trying to work in a distracting environment. ...
- Memorizing without understanding. ...
- Procrastinating until crunch time. ...
- Skipping sleep. ...
- Ignoring expenses.
The desire to achieve high grades in a difficult academic environment can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety. Students may overwork themselves and neglect their own well-being, especially if they procrastinate on assignments. Procrastination itself can be a coping mechanism for anxiety about grades.What makes college not worth it? ›
People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees.What are some reasons why college is not worth it? ›
- You May Not Need a Degree for Your Chosen Career. While many modern jobs require a degree, this is not the case for all career paths. ...
- You May Not Graduate if Your Heart Isn't Into it. ...
- College Is Expensive.
That being said, you can certainly be successful without a college degree — your skills and talents can get you hired. Find out exactly what skills are needed for your career path and work hard to excel in them. You will have to be determined, self-disciplined, and goal-oriented.What is the hardest year for college students? ›
There is no question that the first semester of the freshman year of college is the most critical. Many studies show that freshman year is the time when students most likely drop out of college – if not permanently, then temporarily.What are the most hardest year in college? ›
Everyone's college experience is different. Many people including myself have found the third year to be the most difficult. This is the year in which you will start to take classes that are specifically for your major. The classes for your major tend to be more challenging than core classes.What grade is bad in college? ›
Intended as a red flag to let students know they need to get back on track, academic probation is the result of failing grades. Experts say that typically means below a 2.0 GPA, though that number can vary by college and even by the specific program of study.