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 Student Access in Community Colleges 

Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI


American higher education has a 360-year history of expansion and innovation in the delivery of instruction, research, and service. Milestones in the history include the establishment of the four-year American baccalaureate degree in 1642 at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the master’s degree at Harvard College in 1872, and the Ph.D. degree at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1861. Other innovations include the evolution of 105 historically black colleges and universities, beginning with Cheney University in Pennsylvania in 1839, and growth and development of the land grant colleges and universities in 1862 and 1992. Each of these developments has produced greater access to higher education.

One of the most important innovations for higher education in the 20th century has been the establishment of two-year community colleges, which originated in part to help accommodate the growing demand by high school graduates to continue their education at the college level. Research indicates that each level of schooling creates the demand for the next level, and throughout the 20th century, the growth in high school completion rates has generated enormous demand for higher education in the United States (Cohen 1985; Illich 1971; Greene 1980). More than 90 percent of the American population has a high school diploma. The continuing growth in high school completion and the resulting demand for postsecondary education have made community colleges popular. Since 1901, with their beginnings in Joliet, Illinois, community colleges have provided greater access for students than any other sector of higher education.

Community colleges also have grown steadily in popularity, especially among part-time students. In 1996, more than 5.5 million of the nation's 12.2 million undergraduate students attended two-year colleges. Table 1 shows that in that year, 63.6 percent of community college students attended part time. Over the past two decades, part-time enrollment at community colleges increased by 60.6 percent, whereas full-time enrollment increased by 25.3 percent. Table 2 shows that both part-time enrollment and full-time enrollment grew more slowly at four-year institutions, by 24.1 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively. (NCES 1977, 1987, and 1995)

Among part-time students, minority enrollment increased over the past two decades: Asian enrollment increased by 357.2 percent; Hispanic enrollment increased by 262.9 percent; and African American enrollment increased by 85.3 percent. At four-year institutions, minority enrollment among part-time students increased at a lower rate: Asian by 263.3 percent; Hispanic by 180 percent; African American by 54.5 percent. Similarly, minority enrollment at two-year colleges also has exceeded that of four-year colleges over the past two decades. Table 1 shows that full-time enrollment at two-year colleges increased by 16 percent for African Americans, by 143 percent for Hispanics, and by 250 percent for Asians. Table 2 shows the comparable full-time rates of growth at four-year colleges: 32 percent for African Americans, 192 percent for Hispanics, and 346 percent for Asians. These data support Judith Eaton’s (1994) contention that much of the growth in higher education could not have occurred without two-year colleges. (NCES 1977, 1987, and 1995)

Two year colleges also reported growth in enrollment among women during that period. Table 3 illustrates that full-time female enrollment increased by 53.3 percent, and part-time female enrollment increased by 82.8 percent. Table 4 shows that at four-year institutions, full-time female enrollment grew by 35.5 percent, and part-time female enrollment grew by 43.3 percent.

Enrollment Challenges

If viewed in the traditional college attendance context, the completion and transfer rates of students who enter community colleges appear to be low. Fewer than one-fourth of individuals who began their postsecondary education at a community college in 1989-90 had attained an associate degree (17.5 percent) or a certificate (5 percent) at the first institution in which they enrolled by spring 1994, five years later. Only 17.7 percent of those who began their postsecondary education in a community college in 1989-90 had earned an associate degree at any institution by 1994; 6.4 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges must examine the completion rates and decide how to convey to the public, either that these are acceptable levels of completion and why, or set up a rate that we should aspire to achieve. At this time, the public has no basis for gauging the quality of community college completion rates, and there are no established standards. (NCES 1977, 1987, and 1995)

About 22 percent of all students who first enrolled in a public two-year college in 1989 transferred to a four-year college or university within five years. A smaller percentage of African Americans than whites transferred to a four-year college or university (15 percent versus 22 percent). Common definitions of transfers are needed throughout the nation in order to develop normative standards for institutions to monitor their status and progress. Some colleges count as transfers only those students who receive an associate degree. Others include people who have completed a specified number of credit hours. Others include anyone who ever attended. In addition to clarifying and defining transfers, community colleges need to clarify acceptable standards of transfer rates.

Table 5 shows that, with the exception of whites, all groups represented a higher percent of associate degree recipients in 1995 than in 1977. Although the number of whites receiving associate degrees increased by 18 percent (from 342,281 to 405,087) between 1977 and 1995, they was a decline in the percentage of associate degree recipients among whites over the two decades. The number of associate degrees awarded to African Americans in the United States increased by 38 percent over the past two decades. African Americans received 9 percent of all associate degrees awarded nationwide in 1995, an increase from 8 percent in 1977 and from 8 percent in 1987. Hispanic and Asian students saw the highest percent increase in all associate degrees awarded over the past two decades. In the 20-year period, the number of degrees awarded to Hispanics increased by 111 percent, and the number awarded to Asians increased by 191 percent.

Community colleges aspire to accomplish a broad mission that is both a blessing and a curse. They are open-admissions institutions. They seek to prepare students for entry-level jobs in a broad range of technological, allied health, and business occupations. They aim to prepare students to transfer and succeed in upper-division baccalaureate degree programs. They seek to remain accessible for traditional-age and older students. They provide part-time and full-time degree credit courses as well as an array of nondegree credit courses. In general, community colleges do not require students to take college admissions tests, such as the American College Test (ACT) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), so the community colleges themselves are often the proving grounds for four-year college-level education.

There is hardly an urban or suburban area of the country that does not have a community college. They are commuter campuses designed to cater to to the citizens and the industries of the community in which they are located. Community college budgets are supported more often by local tax revenue than are those of four-year institutions.

Arthur Cohen (1985) contended that each of these features has enhanced the attractiveness of community colleges for low-ability students and for those only casually committed to schooling. Cohen (1985) also observed that community colleges have absorbed the educational functions previously offered by other agencies, such as law enforcement programs from police academies, firefighter training from fire departments, and health technology and nursing programs from hospitals. At the same time, the colleges have provided an educational avenue for scores of people in the midst of traumatic life transitions that require special intervention. The literature is replete with anecdotes of people who exceed the traditional college age who need training or education in order to lead productive, fulfilling lives. (Chaffe 1992)

As they continue managing a broad mission, community colleges are experiencing an identity crisis. Eaton (1994) points out the struggle within community colleges regarding curricula and whether occupationally-oriented programs should contain liberal arts courses. Cohen (1985) observed how the growth trend in community colleges brought with it greater numbers of academically underprepared students who seemed unwilling or unable to carry out the level of work expected of college students. This raises the dilemma for community colleges as to whether they are providing college-level or high school-level educational programs (Cohen 1985; Eaton 1994).

Adding fuel to the debate are such programs as Middle College at LaGuardia Community College. Middle College is an alternative school for high-risk high school students (Chaffe 1992). Public policy and economic arguments favor community colleges that consider themselves to be college-level institutions. The high rates of participation lead to a higher demand for a college education, and community colleges are needed in order to meet this demand. Often, this demand leads to the inclusion of underprepared students. Consequently, community colleges enroll a higher share of underprepared students than do four-year colleges and universities. In fact, many people have difficulty distinguishing the high school and college-level instruction provided in community colleges. Eaton (1994) believes that college-level education is more attractive to taxpayers than for community colleges to provide high school-level education, and community colleges are struggling to affirm their identity as college-level institutions.

Access Issues for Community Colleges

Among the important access issues and challenges facing each community college, and community colleges collectively, are the following:

  • Ensuring that knowledge and awareness about degree credit and nondegree credit courses and program offerings span the broad demographic range of citizens in their community.

  • Ensuring that the public is aware of the range of services, such as transfer preparation and vocational retraining.

  • Ensuring that admissions procedures and requirements are publicized across the demographic range of citizens in the community.

  • Ensuring that the public understands the cost of attending community college and that financial aid is available if needed.

  • Recruiting underrepresented students, especially African American and Hispanic, especially into career-oriented degree tracks such as mathematics, the sciences and technical fields in which they are currently not well represented.

  • Ensuring that students who enter a community college with the aspiration or expectation of successfully graduating and transferring to a four-year institution are able to fulfill their educational objective.

  • Ensuring that policies established to increase access also include consideration of persistence and completion.

  • Ensuring that students who enroll and successfully persist, through either a general education or a vocational degree program, are adequately prepared to succeed academically at the next college (four-year) of their choice.

  • Recruiting, employing, and retaining faculty who represent minority groups, especially African American and Hispanic.

  • Ensuring that community colleges adapt to address the changing needs of their community.

  • Ensuring that community colleges follow up with their graduates to know where they are employed or attending college, and how well they are progressing and performing.

Need for Better Data and Information

National, state, and institutional databases appear adequate for monitoring progress in the representation of men and women and members of various racial groups. At the national level, the Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) monitors these trends. Many state systems also maintain enrollment data to use in their funding and appropriations formulas. Overall transfer rates, as well as transfer rates by race, gender, and age, can often be generated from state-level databases and from institutional databases. Many states are able to match individual students' records in public two-year colleges and four-year colleges to learn how students are progressing through their academic coursework at the two-year college level and through the four-year level toward completing their baccalaureate degrees.

There are, however, many access issues about which data have not yet emerged, even at the institutional level. Community colleges typically do not require college admissions test scores for students to be admitted; therefore, there is little data concerning the different levels of preparation and achievement by students as they enter community colleges. Routinely, community colleges administer placement tests to students upon their arrival on campus, permitting the college to intervene early in helping students improve their reading and math skills. The results of these assessments, however, are not used for reporting demographic differences in the population of students or for monitoring trends. 

Community colleges are both lauded and admonished for their broad missions and for their open access. But in order to understand the degree to which they are fulfilling their missions, certain data that would be helpful but that are not readily available include the following: the personal, academic, and work backgrounds of students who apply and enroll; the career and personal interests of students who apply and enroll; the school and work plans of the students who enroll; and the students' personal commitments outside of school and work.

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