To Complete or Not to Complete? Measuring Community College Student Success

The motivating factors that prompt students to enroll in a community college are as varied and diverse as their academic and socio-economic backgrounds. While most university-bound students apply to their four-year school of choice with the intent of completing a program of study and attaining a degree, a community college student’s “why” is typically neither as clear nor as linear.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, only thirteen percent of all community college students complete by earning a degree or credential in two years. An expanded overview of two-year diploma acquisition at three years and beyond increases traditional completion rates, but only minimally. This begs the question: What should community college completion look like, and what measures of attainment equate to success in this higher education sector? Simply put, should community college students be expected to complete or not? 

Humble Beginnings

From their humble beginnings back at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, two-year institutions were designed with a different end in mind. Their inception was centered on the premise that by increasing access to technical training, vocational skills, and post-secondary courses, the local, state, and national economy would be strengthened, thanks to the resulting increase of skilled and trained workers. Over a century later, the mission of these educational stalwarts has continued to evolve, adding layers of complexity and making a singular, static measure of success that much more difficult to define. 

Equal Parts Hope and Hurry

Today’s community college students are introduced to a buffet of program offerings, from non-credit to credit, certificate to diploma, all in one place. They complete (or don’t) a new student orientation full of abstract ideas and inspiration and enroll full-time or part-time, online or in person. Many stop taking classes a few semesters later, taking time off for a variety of reasons:

  • Relocation
  • Changing jobs
  • Health concerns
  • Managing family matters
  • Balancing the stresses of daily disruptors
  • Replenishing bank accounts to self-finance the rising costs of community college education

These students may return dismayed about remediating academic deficiencies in critical areas like math and science that have long thwarted their career goals and college dreams. They may take another break, overwhelmed by the growing complexities of a volatile economy and an instant gratification social media sphere that challenges what the American dream should and could look like.

One semester off turns into a year or two, and they remember—perhaps inspired by a salary or promotion requiring it— that their elusive diploma or general degree is just a few more classes away. Advisors explain new concepts like stackable credits, workforce and industry certifications, and transfer pathways. Students may experience at once an intoxicating invitation of infinite possibilities and an inexplicable sense of dread that maybe there is no end to the education they’ve put off. They may already feel like they are running too behind to complete.

THIS is the world of the community college student today, perplexed by equal parts hope and hurry that spurred them to enroll at their community college in the first place. 

Gaining clarity

Perhaps the best place to gain some clarity on assessing community college completion is where the exceptions to this enrollment rollercoaster exist. The completion rates of community college students who enroll in health care and specialized programs are typically higher. These programs—such as highly coveted and selective admission programs in nursing, radiology, respiratory therapy, and engineering technology—incentivize student completion with the promise of high-wage, high-demand careers and opportunities for career growth.

So, in considering whether students should complete their course of study at a community college, it’s essential to understand and accurately reflect what their enrollment intent is. In some instances, it’s not that degree-seeking program they selected on their application only to increase financial aid eligibility, but rather a non-credit certificate that expedites their employability and earning potential. Community college students pursuing degrees with broader applicability and greater career ambiguity can languish over time, taking as many as six years to complete and earn a two-year degree. 

Building Pathways to Completion

Institutions must reflect, assess, and address the barriers that prevent timely completion, like failing to connect degrees to career placement. From offering more inclusive and less restrictive scholarships and financial aid packages to decreasing academic requirements and, instead, focusing on key technical competencies and subject mastery to expedite completion, there are viable options for these institutions to identify and define what completion at a community college looks like. At the same time, they should evaluate what they and their community—funders, philanthropists, investors, public/private partnerships, and endowments—are doing to build pathways to completion. Innovative and proven steps include establishing paid internships, fellowships, advisory councils, employer reimbursement programs, and technical and non-credit scholarship programs that cover high cost, high employability certifications. 

To ensure the next century of community college impact can be measured by completion, these transformational institutions must collectively begin to tell the story of what success looks like and clearly establish how these milestones will be measured, analyzed, and evaluated over time. This will certainly result in a definitive answer of a resounding “Yes!” to whether to complete or not to complete at a community college.