Community colleges have long been known as a popular destination for adult students seeking a higher education. But a new U.S. Education Department study shows the extent to which two-year institutions are having an increasing impact on traditional-aged undergraduates.
As of 2001, people under the age of 22 constituted 42 percent of all credit-seeking students at community colleges, according to the report, an executive summary  of which is available on the Education Department's Web site. In addition, those under the age of 24 constituted three-fourths of first-time community college students.
These figures, which represent increases over data from previous surveys, reflect the changing nature of community colleges in an era in which many public four-year colleges have increased tuition substantially while increasing admissions requirements or limiting enrollment. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the Education Department, wrote that he was trying to paint a more complete picture of who these students are so that both educators and policy makers can understand them.
Adelman based his findings on examinations of long-term records about thousands of students as they passed through various levels of the educational system.
Among his findings:
- Forty percent of traditional-age students who entered higher education in the 1990s started out in community colleges.
- For students 24 and older who are starting their higher educations, 60 percent enroll first at community colleges. These students are more likely than other community college students to think of themselves as working adults, not students. These students are also less likely to transfer to four-year institutions.
- With the exception of Latinos, traditional-age minority students are no more likely than white students to start at a community college.
- Slightly more than half of what Adelman calls "belated bachelors" -- students who first aspire to earn a bachelor's degree -- start their higher education at community colleges.
- Of 12th graders in 1992 who went on to enter higher education at a community college, and who earned more than 10 credits at a community college, 37 percent transferred to a four-year institution by the end of 2000, and of those who transferred, 60 percent had earned a bachelor's degree by that time.