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 AACC Statement on Common Criticisms of Colleges - The Community College Perspective 

  • Click here to download this statement in PDF format.

Community colleges are frequently subject to criticisms including:

1. Students who want a baccalaureate degree are better off starting at a four-year institution.
2. Community colleges have poor graduation rates.
3. Community colleges allow students not to apply themselves in high school.
4. Remedial education prevents students from being successful.
5. Community college students who borrow are more likely to default on student loans.
6. Community colleges try to be all things to all people.

The following synthesis of practical knowledge and rigorous research provides a succinct analysis and commentary on these criticisms.

Students who want a baccalaureate degree are better off starting at a four-year institution.

Community colleges perform a wide variety of functions, including preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. Recent research has pointed out that those who begin their postsecondary education at a community college are less likely to attain a baccalaureate degree than those who start on a four-year campus.(1) However, focusing on this phenomenon obscures more than it reveals. A few reasons why follow:

  • Student characteristics that contribute to baccalaureate attainment are less prevalent among students who start at community colleges.

The characteristics associated with baccalaureate degree attainment are less common among students who attend community colleges than those who generally initially enroll in a four-year institution. These positive factors include having a strong high school academic record, higher family income, parents who attended college, entry to college right after high school, full-time college attendance, and continuous enrollment.(2) In a word, students enrolling at two- and four-year colleges do not begin at the same "starting line" as those entering four-year colleges.

Nevertheless, individuals who start at the community college intending to earn a baccalaureate degree have been found to engage in one to two more semesters of schooling than those who enrolled at four-year colleges, (3) a benefit that has economic rewards in terms of increased earnings. (4)

  • Four-year institutions that admit greater numbers of community college students have relatively high attrition rates, placing transfers in relatively less congenial learning environments than those generally found at four-year colleges.

Four-year institutions with high levels of transfers-in of former community college students tend to have high attrition rates, fewer financial resources, less on-campus housing, lower tuition and fees (associated with lower persistence), and a larger number of two-year institutions in the state in which the four-year institution is located. (5) While the presence of a high attrition rate at four-year institutions provides an increased ability to enroll transfer students, it also signals a decrease in factors that will help those who transfer attain a baccalaureate degree. This can skew comparisons between the academic experiences of those who initially enroll in four-year colleges and those who start at community colleges.

  • Many four-year colleges unfairly deny community college credits.

A significant hurdle to baccalaureate degree completion for community college starters is beyond their control: the number of credits accepted by the receiving institution. Research shows that for those students who had all of their courses transfer to a four-year institution, 82% completed a baccalaureate degree within six years of starting postsecondary education. (6) This rate is reduced by nearly half – to 42% - when only some credits are accepted. A national study found that for students who completed 10 credit hours at a community college and 10 credits at a four-year institution, the baccalaureate degree completion rate was 62.3%. (7)

  • Despite significant obstacles, community college students who transfer to four-year colleges attain the B.A. at the same rate as do native four-year college students.

Once accepted by four-year institutions, community college students are generally successful. (8) A study comparing native and transfer students at a southern four-year institution found no "significant GPA differences between cumulative upper division GPAs of transfer and native students." (9) In a study of an accounting class at a Texas public university, transfer students performed better in the class than "native" students. (10) Also on this campus, community college transfer students had essentially the same high school grade point averages as did the "native" students.

America's system of higher education needs to produce more baccalaureate degrees, as well as more associate degrees. Community colleges have a responsibility to ensure that students committed to attaining a B.A. are prepared to do so. But this cannot be achieved without enthusiastic participation by four-year institutions.

Community colleges have poor graduation rates.

Community colleges provide educational opportunity to those who may not otherwise be afforded the chance, but also effective institutional performance is essential to maintain a college's importance to the community. Community colleges receive significant financial support from their local communities. If the colleges were not providing outputs and outcomes valued by their constituents – the community – they would not be in operation.

One measure of success of postsecondary education is an institution's graduation rate. While this measure is applicable to certain programs in the community college, it is not applicable to assess the value of the institution in its entirety. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Graduation rates are misleading.

Researchers at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University have suggested that "graduation rates are, to say the least, misleading as a measure of individual community college student outcomes." (11) Their reasoning was supported in data analysis and through the delineation of the following flaws in the current way graduation rates are calculated: (12)

Component Variability. Definitions vary by state for key components used to determine graduation rates, including but not limited to, the start time of the cohort, the definition of first-time student, the meaning of credit or contact hour, whether programs are classified as degree seeking, and who determines an individual’s degree-seeking status. In other words, the ways states calculate graduation rates are not consistent from state to state.

Student Mobility. Forty percent of first-time community college students attend more than one institution during their college career. Current graduation rates do not track these students if they transfer to another institution, thereby severely underestimating the relative success of the institutions from which they transfer. Transfer rates that are reported to the National Center for Education Statistics have been found to be half of what is reported.

Inappropriate Time Period. Many students who start at the community college need remedial courses that do not count toward a credential. As such, the three-year graduation rate used by the Federal government is too short. If a six-year rate were employed, the individual graduation rate would increase by a factor of two.

A Majority of Students Are Excluded Under the Federal Definition. In the fall of 2007, 59.3% of community college students were enrolled part-time. Current graduation rates leave out this majority of community college students. (13)

  • Student Success Comes in Different Forms.

To address the various outputs that contribute to an outcome such as employment or being admitted to a four-year institution, community colleges have engaged in pioneering work in using data. (14) Two approaches – building cultures of evidence and momentum measures – provide the foundation for action and increased success.

Cultures of Evidence. In the current data-driven decision-making climate, many community colleges are struggling to maintain the resources need to staff an institutional research office. (15) Nevertheless, college leaders have increased their use of data in the decision-making process. This is clearly evident at institutions participating in the Achieving the Dream (ATD) initiative, where new measures of performance are being developed and informing institutional practice. (16) ATD practices are now extant in 102 community colleges and 16 states.

Momentum Measures. While acknowledged only periodically, success is attained incrementally. Recent work on identifying academic milestones towards academic success is helping colleges focus on the barriers students face in achieving successful completion. (17) Examples of "momentum" measures include:

  • Passing a remedial math or English course with a qualifying grade to advance toward college-level work (18)
  • Earning the first 15 college-level credits (19)
  • Earning the first 30 college-level credits (20)
  • Persisting from one semester to the next (21)
  • Passing the highest level college preparatory course in a subject area (22)
  • Transferring to a four-year institution with fewer than 45 or 60 credit hours (23)

Federal support for the development of student unit-record data will continue to advance the use of data in the development of accountability models at community colleges. The American Association of Community Colleges, in partnership with the Association of Community College Trustees and the College Board and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education, have embarked on the development of a Voluntary Framework of Accountability to support the use of appropriate data to improve institutional and individual success among community colleges. (24)

Community colleges allow students not to apply themselves in high school.

Most students who do not apply themselves in high school will need remediation upon entering college. Still, the perception exists among high school students that there is little connection between the work they do in high school and college success. (25)

  • To be successful in postsecondary education students have to apply themselves in high school.

High school students who believe they can slack-off in high school and be successful in college are mistaken. High school grade point average has been found to be "a far better predictor of both four-year and six-year graduation rates than are SAT/ACT test scores." (26) Further research has shown that gaps in graduation rates had more to do with high school preparation than with taking remedial classes at college. (27) The research has utilized remedial education as a proxy for low academic performance; however, when an individual's high school academic credentials are included, they remove the influence of remedial education as a predictor of postsecondary graduation. (28)

Remedial education prevents students from being successful.

Research has shown that 63% of community college students averaged a year or more of remedial education. (29) This large number of participants may be attributed to both the varying standards applied to whether students are required to take remedial education and the degree to which a student is college-ready.

  • Defining who needs remediation lacks consistency.

Most states mandate placement assessments at community colleges, (30) and in those states that do not, individual institutions generally do. (31) Minimum levels of achievement needed to determine placement into remedial education vary broadly. (32) A trend has also emerged whereby four-year institutions have stopped offering remediation and assigned those students to community colleges. (33)

  • A student's academic foundation makes a significant difference in educational attainment.

As addressed in Concern 3, an individual's academic background substantially influences success when attainment is defined within time-sensitive periods. As previously noted, academic preparedness before entering postsecondary education greatly influences student success as it is currently defined.

  • Remediation helps students be successful.

Taking remedial classes at community colleges does not limit academic success in college, even when students take more than three remedial classes. (34) Further, attrition rates were no higher for students taking remedial courses than for non-remedial students of similar academic backgrounds. (35) Community college students who passed remedial classes were found to be more likely to graduate than were similar students who did not take remedial coursework. (36)

Community college students who borrow are more likely to default on student loans.

Student loan defaults are a serious concern for institutions of postsecondary education. The federal government has aided in reducing default rates by sanctioning institutions with high default rates. The result is a decrease in the number of sanctioned institutions from 642 in 1992 to 2 in 2007. (37) Still national student loan cohort default rates have increased over the past two years from 4.6% in 2005 to 6.7% in 2007. (38) All segments of the community college sector had rates higher than 6.7%. (39) Here are some explanations why:

  • Community college students do not maximize their use of lower interest federal loans.

Higher interest rates increase debt and make loans harder to repay. Only 10% of community colleges students took out federal Stafford loans, as compared to 88% of students at for-profit institutions and 42% of students at public four-year institutions. (40) While low tuition allowed for a lower percentage of community college students to take out loans, private borrowing increased from 1% to 4% at public community colleges between fiscal year 2004 and 2008. (41) Community college students must be educated at every step to take out low-interest loans.

  • Community colleges students remain by far the least dependent on loans of any sector of higher education.

At community colleges, 62% of associate degree and 70% of certificate earners graduated without debt during the 2007-08 academic year. Comparatively, 2% of associate degree and 10% of certificate earners graduated from for-profit institutions without debt. (42) It should also be noted that the tuition and fees at a for-profit institution is roughly five and a half times those at a public community college. (43)

Community colleges try to be all things to all people.

Community colleges were created to address both the needs of the institutional service area and the larger state. (44) To suggest that these colleges try to do too much implies that the people who comprise communities try to do too much. In reality, community colleges are responsive institutions whose open access mission and community accountability make them critical, and sometimes singular, providers of opportunity.

  • Community colleges are responsive institutions.

Each institution is different in the educational programs it offers, as demand drives delivery. The responsive nature of the colleges requires them to be innovative and flexible, and therefore, "uniquely suited for quickly creating high quality, tailored training programs that respond to the changing needs of businesses, industry and government." (45) In fact, many community colleges serve as part of civic economic development teams because of their ability to provide needed education and training that attracts new or relocating industry.

  • Community colleges are critical providers of opportunity.

Community colleges do not narrowly tailor who they admit, or strictly prescribe in what program and courses individuals may choose to enroll, a practice more common to selective institutions. They are aptly called "democracy's colleges" where an egalitarian credo is fundamental to their open access mission. (46) The provision of educational opportunity is critical in maintaining a postsecondary education system built to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life;" (47) a commitment state and land-grant institutions are having difficulty keeping. (48) Without the commitment community colleges have made to the community and its citizens, such a promise may likely go unfulfilled.

Contact Christopher M. Mullin, 202-728-0200 ext. 258, or


[1] William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[2] Characteristics provided in a review of the literature as expressed in Juan Carlos Calcagno, Thomas Bailey, Davis Jenkins, Gregory Keinzl, and Timothy Leinbach, "Community College Student Success: What Institutional Characteristics Make a Difference" Economics of Education Review 27 (2008): 632-645.

[3] Duane E. Leigh and A.M. Gill, "Do Community Colleges Really Divert Students from Earning a Bachelor’s Degree?" Economics of Education Review 22 (2003): 23-30.

[4] For a discussion see, Thomas J. Kane and Cecilia Elena Rouse, "The Community College: Educating Students at the Margin Between College and Work" Journal of Economic Perspectives 13, No. 1(1999): 63-84.

[5] John J. Cheslock, "Differences Between Public and Private Institutions of Higher Education in the Enrollment of Transfer Students," Economics of Education Review 25 (2005): 263-274.

[6] Will Doyle, "Community College Transfers and College Graduation: Whose Choices Matter Most?" Change (May/June 2006).

[7] Clifford Adelman, Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education: 1972-2000 (Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, 2004): 47.

[8] Tatiana Melguizo and Alicia C. Dowd, "Baccalaureate Success of Transfers and Rising 4-Year College Juniors," Teachers College Record 111, No. 1 (January 2009): 55-89; Matthew W. Campbell, "The Academic Performance of Community College Transfer Students at a Land Grant University" (Ed.D. dissertation, Auburn University, 2002); Quentin J. Bogart and M. J. Price, Arizona Student Success: A Comparative Study of Community College Transfer, Four-Year College Transfer, and Native University Students. A Final Report to the State, Its Leadership, and Its Citizens (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona State Board of Directors for Community Colleges, 1993); Matthew D. Johnson, "Academic Performance of Transfer Versus ‘Native’ Students in Natural Resources & Sciences," College Student Journal 39, No.3 (2005): 570-579; J. Conrad Glass, Jr. and Anthony R. Harrington, "Academic Performance of Community College Transfer Students and "Native" Students at a Large State University," Community College Journal of Research and Practice 26 (2002): 415-430; Sanford L. Boswell, "Comparison of the Academic Performance of Community College Transfer Students, Private Junior Colleges Transfer Students, and Native Students in the Upper Divisions of Three Senior Educational Institutions in the University of North Carolina System, Fall Semester 1988, through Fall Semester, 1990" (Ed.D. Dissertation, North Carolina State University, 1993); Leo W. Anglin, John W. Davis, and Paul W. Mooradian, "Do Transfer Students Graduate? A Comparative Study of Transfer Students and Native University Students" (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association, Atlanta, GA, April 12-16, 2009); Cecilia Valle Gonzales, "An Analysis of the Academic Performance and Success of Community College Transfer Students as Compared with University Students" (Ed.D. Dissertation, Baylor University, 1999); and, Frank Y. Ashby, "Community College Undergraduate Engineering Transfer Students at a Research University" (Ed.D. Dissertation, University of Washington, 2008).

[9] Phillip E. Carlan and Ferris R. Byxbe, "Community Colleges Under the Microscope: An Analysis of Performance Predictors for Native and Transfer Students," Community College Review 28, No. 2 (2000): 33.

[10] Lucille Montondon and Elaine E. Eikner, Comparison of Community College Transfer Students and Native Students in an Upper Level Accounting Course. Community College Review 25, No. 3 (1997): 21-38.

[11] Thomas Bailey, Peter M. Crosta, and Davis Jenkins, What Can Student Right-to-Know Graduation Rates Tell Us about Community College Performance? [CCRC Working Paper No. 6] (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, Community College Research Center, August 2006): 22.

[12] Ibid., 4-8.

[13] American Association of Community Colleges analysis of fall enrollment totals reported in Thomas D. Snyder, Sally A. Dillow, and Charlene M. Hoffman, "Table 193. Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Institutions, by level of Enrollment, Sex, Attendence Status, and Type and Control of Institution: 2007" in Digest of Educational Statistics, 2008 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, March 2009).

[14] Susan Goldberger, Power Tools: Designing State Community College Data and Performance Measurement Systems to Increase Student Success [An Achieving the Dream Policy Brief] (Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future and Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, October 2007).

[15] Vanessa Smith Morest and Davis Jenkins, Institutional Research and the Culture of Evidence at Community Colleges [Culture of Evidence Series No.1] (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, Community College Research Center, April 2007).

[16] Achieving the Dream, State Policy Accomplishments 2008 (Washington, DC: Author, n.d.).

[17] D. Timothy Leinbach and Davis Jenkins, "Using Longitudinal Data to Increase Community College Student Success: A Guide to Measuring Milestone and Momentum Point Attainment" [CCRC Research Tools No. 2] (New York: Teachers College Columbia University, Community College Research Center, January 2008).

[18] State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, "Student Achievement Initiative Momentum Point Calculation" (Olympia, WA: Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, March 2007).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, On the Road to Success – Some Intermediate Milestones [Student Success Snapshot, No. 9] (Richmond, VA: Virginia Community College System, August 2009).

[22] Community College Office of Budget and Financial Services, "Performance Funding Report for 2007-2008" (Tallahassee, FL: Florida Community College System, July 2007).

[23] Ibid.

[24] For more information, see

[25] College Board, Why Community College: What Students Need to Know About Community Colleges [Electronic Document] (Washington, DC: Author, n.d.).

[26] William G. Bowen, Mathew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[27] "New Evidence on College Retention," 915.

[28] Ibid., 889; Cliff Adelman, Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1999): 75.

[29] J. Wirt, S. Choy, P. Rooney, S. Provasnik, A. Sen, and R. Tobin, The Condition of Education 2004 [NCES 2004-077] (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004): 84.

[30] Michael L. Collins, It’s Not About the Cut Score: Redesigning Placement Assessment Policy to Improve Student Success [An Achieving the Dream Policy Brief] (Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future, July 2008).

[31] Dolores Perin, "Can Community Colleges Protect Both Access and Standards? The Problem of Remediation," Teachers College Record 108, No.3 (March 2006):339-373; Christopher Shults, Remedial Education: Practices and Policies in Community Colleges [Research Brief, AACC-RB-00-2] (Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges, 2000).

[32] It’s Not about the Cut Score, 17.

[33] Paul Attawell, David Lavin, Thurston Domina, and Tania Levey, "New Evidence on College Remediation," The Journal of Higher Education 77, No.5 (September/October 2006): 886-924.

[34] Ibid., 915.

[35] Ibid., 915.

[36] Ibid., 915.

[37] Susan Szabo, Briefing on National Default Rates (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, September 14, 2009).

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.  Proprietary institutions had the highest default rate at 12.5%, private institutions had a rate of 8.1% and public institutions had a rate of 9.1% for the 2007 fiscal year.

[40] College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2009 [Trends in Higher Education Series] (Washington, DC: Author, October 2009): 8.

[41] The Institute for College Access and Success, Private Loans: Facts and Trends (Washington, DC: The Project on Student Debt, August 2009).

[42] Ibid., 10.

[43] College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2009 [Trends in Higher Education Series] (Washington, DC: Author, October 2009): 6.

[44] In many states, the role of the community college was included as part of a state master plan at the urging of President Harry Truman who created a commission to examine the future of higher education in the United States in 1947.  The President’s Commission on Higher Education suggested community colleges should be “carefully planned to fit into a comprehensive State-wide system of higher education.” See, President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for Democracy: A Report to the President’s Commission on Higher Education, Volume I: Establishing the Goals (New York: Harper & Brothers 1947): 67.

[45] Dick Shaink, President of Mott Community College, quoted in Duane M. Elling, “Community Colleges Gaining Educational Ground,” Mott News, October 19, 2009.

[46] For a discussion on the evolution of the community college see, Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer, The American Community College, 5th Ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

[47] Morrill Act, Public Law 37-108 (1862): § 4.

[48] See Kellogg Foundation on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, Returning to Our Roots: Executive Summaries of the Reports of the Kellogg commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities (Washington, DC: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, January 2001).

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