Community colleges serve close to half of the undergraduate students in the United States, which included more than 6.5 million credit students in the fall of 2005. The comprehensive mission of community colleges makes them attractive to a broad range of people who seek particular programs or opportunities of special interest. Community colleges are the gateway to postsecondary education for many minority, low income, and first-generation postsecondary education students. Since 1985, more than half of all community college students have been women. In addition, the majority of Black and Hispanic undergraduate students in this country study at these colleges.
Community colleges also provide access to education for many nontraditional students, such as adults who are working while enrolled. The average age of a community college student is 29, and two thirds of community college students attend part-time. At the same time, community colleges are not only providing access for adult students, but also serving an increasing number of traditional age and high school students who take specific courses to get ahead in their studies. In fact, half of the students who receive a baccalaureate degree attend community college in the course of their undergraduate studies.
The costs to attain a postsecondary degree are on the rise. As a result, increasing numbers of students at community colleges (and 4-year institutions) are looking to the federal financial aid programs to help offset or finance the costs of their education. Almost half of the students attending community college receive some form of financial aid to help finance their studies. In 2005, more than 2 million community college students received Pell grant dollars. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in government policies away from grants toward student loans. Because of the low costs to attend community college, the amounts borrowed are lower for community college students than they are for their counterparts at 4-year institutions (public and private).
Community colleges are diverse institutions that serve a wide variety of needs. These include the students who attend to upgrade their skills for a particular job, students who are pursuing an associate degree to transfer to a 4-year institution, and students who attend to pursue a hobby (such as learning a language). The educational outcomes of community college students reflect this diversity.