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Most public high school graduates from Chicago who attend the city’s community colleges increase their odds of eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, according to a study that challenges a fairly common belief that two-year colleges are often dead ends for students who could have aimed higher.

That argument draws from the influential book Crossing the Finish Line, which said social mobility is at risk if too many disadvantaged but otherwise qualified students are being shunted toward community colleges – so-called “undermatching.” But the new study found that for the vast majority of students, the alternative to attending community college is not enrolling at a four-year institution, but not to attend college at all.

There is some undermatching for more academically prepared students, who otherwise would have been likely to attend four-year colleges, according to the research. But that group was small in the study's Chicago sample.

The new research paper contributes to a touchy debate about the role of community colleges, a discussion that too often lacks nuance, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a co-author of the study. She said the sector is too big and complex to draw much from examples of the “average” student.

“Nothing works the same for everybody,” Goldrick-Rab said, adding that community colleges “open doors for some people and close doors for others.”

Community College or Bust

Jennie E. Brand, a professor of sociology at UCLA, is the primary author of the study, dubbed “Interpreting Community College Effects in the Presence of Heterogeneity and Complex Counterfactuals.” The Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education in April published the research paper, which was discussed in Denver last week at the American Sociological Association. Fabian T. Pfeffer, a faculty research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, was also a co-author.

The researchers identified graduates of Chicago's public schools and tracked those who enrolled in the Chicago City Colleges, a two-year system, over a six-year period between 2001 and 2007. They chose this sample because of the quality of available data and because most students tend to stay local when choosing whether to attend community colleges or non-selective four-year public institutions.

Public high school graduates from Chicago are relatively low-income, compared to the national average, and have less academic support at home. Among the group in the sample, only 11 percent earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, which is “low by nearly any standard.”

Brand cautioned against making broad generalizations about the study’s findings, given that it focuses on one large urban area.

“This should be done on a national level,” she said.

However, Brand and Goldrick-Rab also said that, as in Chicago, most community college students nationwide hail from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. And among this group, it’s often community college or bust.

The study found that disadvantaged students, who would otherwise not have attended college, are 93 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they enroll in a two-year institution. But students who fit the profile for attending a four-year institution and instead enroll in a community college will indeed hurt their odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, according to the study.

“The students most penalized by attending a community college are those with more advantaged social backgrounds and better academic preparation,” who are also the least likely to enroll at a community college, the study found. “It appears these students would be particularly better served by attending a highly-selective four-year school.”

Students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds who choose to enroll in community college have gotten lots of attention of late. Probably too much attention, said the researchers, given this segment’s relatively small size.

“They drive everybody’s discussion,” said Goldrick-Rab.

A Small Problem

While it’s important for better-off students to be aware of how their choice of college will affect their odds of earning a degree, she said the tone of some warnings about undermatching can end up underselling the value of two-year institutions.

“The downside of this is saying that community college is a bad choice,” Goldrick-Rab said, adding that the vast majority of community college students “are at least as well off as they would’ve been elsewhere.”

Michael McPherson does not quibble with that point. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and a co-author of Crossing the Finish Line, said he agrees with both of the study's key findings -- that going to community college is better for bachelor's-degree completion than not going to college, and that academically prepared students should go to a four-year college if they want to earn a four-year degree.

"Going to community college is not a mistake," he said.

Furthermore, McPherson said while the undermatching phenomenon is worrisome, it doesn't rank as a major concern in the context of the national college "completion agenda." Getting more students to graduation at all levels is the real challenge.

"The biggest barrier for students at community colleges is that they don't complete at community colleges," said McPherson.

Although the study focused on bachelor's degrees, community colleges obviously offer meaningful credentials themselves, including certificates and associate degrees. And Goldrick-Rab said they’re also less expensive than four-year colleges, which is a value that the study didn’t tackle.

However, the researchers included the caveat that the relatively small group of middle-class students at community colleges may be growing, thanks to the nation’s prolonged economic doldrums and tuition hikes at four-year colleges. So while Brand said this more advantaged group is currently “not that relevant” when analyzing the role of community colleges, “some of this might be changing in the recession.”

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