College & Workforce Readiness

Community Colleges Are Serving More Younger Adults, Report Says

By Vaishali Honawar — March 15, 2005 7 min read
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As the number of younger students at community colleges grows, a federal report suggests that colleges, lawmakers, and researchers need to view them differently from older students to ensure their academic success.

The March 7 report from the U.S. Department of Education focuses on community college students under 24—the age at which they are considered independent for federal financial-aid purposes.

Clifford Adelman, the report’s author and a senior research analyst at the department, uses the analogy of a community college as a “town” where students arrive as immigrants and establish residence for differing periods of time and intensity. While some students are merely tourists, he says, others are longer-term tenants or homeowners.

Each type of stay, Mr. Adelman said, involves different combinations of academic processes.

“With more students coming to me directly after high school, I have to watch how they are behaving, and I can adjust the bus routes, change traffic patterns so that it produces successful outcomes for these students,” he said of a two-year institution.

Mr. Adelman said there is a need to distinguish between traditional-college-age and older community college students as the younger group is increasing in number because of the so-called baby-boom echo, and also because of the national emphasis on improving high schools.

“Community colleges are sitting more and more on the line between secondary and postsecondary education,” he said. Students are moving directly from high school to community college in bigger numbers, and as many as 42 percent of all community college students are now under the age of 22, up from 32 percent a decade ago.

Administrators at community colleges agree that they have seen such a trend.

“We have been noticing our students are getting younger and poorer,” said Terri Manning, the associate vice president of Central Piedmont College in Charlotte, N.C. She said the trend has been particularly noticeable since 2001, when the stock market sharply declined. She said the college has been pushing to get students struggling to make the transition to college to take a college-skills course that Central Piedmont offers.

Besides the enrollment from the baby-boom echo—the expanding birthrate begun in 1977 as a result of child-bearing by young adults born during the “baby boom” years—rising tuition rates at public and private four-year institutions have also sent more students knocking at the doors of community colleges.

President Bush this month lauded community colleges as an available, affordable, and flexible option.

“It’s important to have a place of higher education that has got the capacity to adjust its curriculum to meet the needs of an employer base,” he said on March 2 at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md.

Portraits of Students

For his study, Mr. Adelman used data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, which followed a group of 25,000 8th graders until 2000.

The report classifies community college students into three groups. The first portrait describes the population of community college students at the moment of moving into town, who they are, and the features of their precollegiate background that can help explain why they started out at a community college.

Baby-Faced at Community College

Younger students are becoming a larger proportion of the community college population.

Year Percent under age 22 Median age
2001 42 23.5
1997 39 24.0
1993 35 24.5
1991 32 26.5

The “residence history portrait” describes those students for whom the community college played a dominant role in undergraduate careers. These students, the report says, started in and earned 30 or more credits from community colleges, and constitute slightly more than half of the traditional-age students who start out in community colleges.

The third portrait focuses on the movement of traditional-age students from the educational institution into the labor market.

Based on these portraits, the report comes up with six distinct traditional-age populations served by community colleges, including a persistent group that transfers to four-year institutions and earns bachelor’s degrees, a group with weaker secondary school preparation that gives up after a struggle to make it in community college, and temporary visitors who are based in other types of institutions, among others.

The study takes a close look at what students from community colleges bring to the workplace, and what they lack.

“They brought incredibly good college math, including finite math; they had the courses in computer science, computer programming, and basic engineering design,” Mr. Adelman said in an interview, adding that students from community colleges also bring with them good technical-writing and oral-communications skills.

“Everything the workplace was asking for, the community college gave these students,” he said.

But there was also some bad news, he said.

“I contrast this with students who wind up in medical-support occupations,” Mr. Adelman said, “and you want to see more basic science than what they had, … so you can say that in one place they did well and in another not so well.”

Observers said the report could serve as a guide to state lawmakers and researchers on how they assess the success of community colleges.

“One thing people do when looking at community colleges is they look at the people who enter and exit and make judgments on the success of the community college based on that,” said Arnold Kee, the director of programs at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in Washington. “They forget that many students who are entering can have a diverse range of goals when they enter, and very few will track whether those students have met their own specific goals.”

Milestones and Obstacles

The Education Department report describes the two milestones for traditional-age community college students as earning an associate’s degree or transferring to a four-year institution. Earning credits in college-level math and completing summer courses are two of the factors that help community college students reach those milestones, it says.

Staying enrolled continuously and withdrawing from or repeating fewer than 20 percent of one’s courses are also strong indicators of success, according to the report.

Entering a community college directly after high school and holding a campus job also increase the chances for getting an associate’s degree. But factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, first-generation college status, and language background do not play a significant role in explaining why some students succeed at community college and others don’t, the report says.

Trudy Bers, the senior director of institutional research at Oakton Community College in suburban Chicago, agreed that continuous enrollment is vital for student success.

“We have been looking at policies and procedures on this,” she said.

The study found that traditional-age community college students who transfer to four-year institutions often do as well academically as those who started out there. For instance, in their first year of coursework at four-year institutions, community college transfers earned credits in a core of courses in roughly the same, or higher, proportions as students who began in four-year institutions.

Ms. Manning of Central Piedmont Community College said she was pleased the study pointed that out.

“Normally, universities seem to look down their noses at community college students because they don’t do as well, but [Mr. Adelman’s] research shows that wasn’t true,” she said.

But the study found that fewer community college transfers earned credits in such subjects as precalculus, calculus, and chemistry, hindering their progress toward degrees in scientific fields. Also, a much higher percentage of community college transfers were enrolled in at least one remedial course during the first year at their four-year colleges.

Mr. Adelman’s study also looks at students’ career paths after leaving community college. It found that for those coming out of community colleges, degrees count more than an accumulation of credits without a degree. For instance, 78 percent of associate’s-degree recipients were continuously employed, compared with 58 percent of those who earned more than 60 credits but no degree.

“If you have an associate’s degree, you are much better off in terms of holding a job consistently, because employers look at the receipt of a degree and see it as a symbol of persistence,” Mr. Adelman said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Community Colleges Are Serving More Younger Adults, Report Says

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