Community college students largely go to college in hopes of advancing in their careers, but fewer than half of community college alumni surveyed believed college helped them do so, according to a new report.
The report, released Wednesday by the Strada Education Foundation, which supports policies and organizations focused on improving higher education outcomes, explores the goals that motivate people to enroll in community colleges and the extent to which they believe college helped them achieve those goals. The findings are based on a national survey of 1,139 recent community college alumni who left college, transferred or graduated in the last decade.
The most common motivators that drove respondents to go to college were career-related. Most community college alumni, 74 percent, reported wanting to gain skills that would help them succeed at work, and 69 percent cited other work-focused goals, such as supporting their families, advancing in their careers or making more money. Most alumni felt college helped them with “personal” or “communal” goals, 60 percent and 61 percent respectively, such as learning new things; being introduced to new cultures, people and ideas; or serving as role models. But only 49 percent of alumni indicated college helped them meet their work-oriented goals.
That finding “tells us we still need to do more to help these individuals develop and experience the fulfillment of those aspirations,” said Dave Clayton, senior vice president of research at the foundation. “They’re investing their hopes and their dreams and their time and their energy and resources in order to move forward, and less than half of them are … recognizing that benefit.”
The report also found that some students felt they got more value out of college than others. People who last attended community college at ages older than 24 were 10 percentage points more likely than their younger peers to believe college was worthwhile and helped them meet their objectives. Perceptions of college’s value also varied by race, ethnicity and family background. Only 51 percent of Latino students thought college was worth the cost, compared to 60 percent of Black students and 62 percent of white students. Meanwhile, first-generation students were significantly less likely—20 percentage points lower—than their peers to see college as helpful and worth the money.
“I think they come in with high expectations and beliefs about the power of higher education to transform their lives,” Clayton said. But with less information and guidance about how to maximize the benefits of college than their classmates, “they fall short of those expectations.” The question for colleges then is “how do we support and encourage all individuals so that they can translate that investment that they’re making into the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams and their functional needs and career aspirations?”
Respondents who made an annual salary of at least $48,000, the median salary for those who worked full-time, were much more likely to believe their college experience had value than those who made less. The report also found that only 35 percent of Black alumni and 47 percent of Latino alumni earned above that salary threshold, compared to 58 percent of white alumni. Community college students who earned an associate degree or transferred to a four-year university also valued their college experience at higher rates than those who didn’t, including those who completed certificate programs.
Clayton noted that certificate holders often earn higher wages than other community college alumni, so it’s striking to him that they’re less likely to feel like college met their hopes and expectations. He believes that data point is worth exploring in more depth, given the proliferation of nondegree programs at community colleges intended to train workers for better-paying jobs.
He was also surprised by the skills alumni valued most from their college years. Students who thought they gained “synthesis skills,” such as written and verbal communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills, were more likely to believe college was worthwhile than their peers, according to the report.
“That to me was a reminder, don’t forget about these higher-order, development, human capital and human skills and these enduring benefits people find in education,” he said.
Alumni also weren’t necessarily motivated to go to college to get degrees. The report found that only about a third of respondents earned an associate degree, but most of them still indicated they fulfilled their attainment goals. While 65 percent of alumni enrolled in hopes of earning associate degrees or certificates, a third took courses for other reasons, including to gain new skills or professional development or to explore their personal interests.
Eric Bettinger, Conley DeAngelis Family Professor of Education in the Stanford University School of Education and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, said as college leaders and policy makers seek to hold community colleges accountable for student outcomes, it’s important to recognize that degree completion isn’t the only measure of success, at least as far as students are concerned.
The “de facto ” way policy makers judge community colleges “is students’ progress towards degrees,” said Bettinger, who served as an adviser on the report. “And this study, it doesn’t denigrate that in any way, shape or form, but it highlights the fact that there’s a lot of students who participate in community colleges who don’t have any desire or that’s not the end goal.”
For example, Bettinger is in the process of enrolling, along with his son, in a German class at De Anza College in California, in preparation for a family trip to Berlin, he said. The application asked what degree he was pursuing, a question that’s irrelevant to him, though he still feels the college is offering him value.
Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the report helps to capture “the complexities of the community college student” and the ways policy levers, such as state funding models, might not capture that.
“If you look at community college as a sector, it’s the least funded sector of higher education,” she said. But “it’s the most diverse in terms of offerings … From a policy perspective, it’s important to understand that not every student wants the same thing. Community colleges reflect the needs of their communities and their students.”
She noted that there’s a lack of data collection on student outcomes for nondegree programs, which makes it “really hard to keep track of all the things that community colleges do.”
The report offers a series of recommendations to college leaders and state and federal policy makers, including tracking these kinds of data and putting more state funding toward academic advising at community colleges.
Clayton said there are gaps between what students expect from education and what they feel they’re getting, so there needs to be better “meta-communication.”
Colleges need to help students “identify the skills that they will be developing, or are developing, as students and learners and how those skills are relevant to their aspirations in their career and in the workplace,” he said.
He noted that community colleges are enjoying renewed attention and investment as policy makers seek to fill labor shortages and workers seek to upskill. He believes the report ultimately shows how much hope students put into community colleges and how important they are.
“People look at community colleges as their pathway to opportunity. It is a primary priority for our nation, not a secondary, and primary priority to individuals, not a fallback,” he added. “And so, all we can do is continue to revitalize and support so they can fulfill their vital role in the lives of individuals and in our communities.”