President Obama proposed making community college tuition free for all in his call to raise the rate of Americans with post-high school credentials to 60 percent. Our Kansas Governor would raise that goal even higher, including military service in his target number—but without free community college.
With associate and bachelor’s degrees now considered replacing the high school diploma as the new requirement for a good job, both politicians expect community colleges to play a major role. As a result, a flood of data has emerged on the real effects of a community college education.
A general rule is that students who attend selective elite liberal arts college have a graduation rate of about 75 percent over six years. Public universities graduate roughly 50 percent in that time. And community colleges generally average 25 percent succeeding in completing the associates degree with fewer moving onward to complete 4-year degrees.
However, Kansas is the top state in community college graduates going forward to complete a 4-year degree. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s annual report lists Kansas with the highest rate of 25.2 percent. Only five other states behind us exceeded 20 percent.
While newspapers credited the Kansas Board of Regents recent mandate that freshman and sophomore courses transfer freely across the state system, the 59-page NSCRC tracked freshmen who entered college in fall 2008 and graduated by May 2014, well before most of the KBOR “seamless articulation” had been completed. Credit for Kansas students’ success most likely falls to the quality of teaching in Kansas K-12 schools.
And six years? Viewing program completion across a six-year time frame is important. Roughly 60 percent of college students change their major at least once. Since legislators, governors and presidents fail to realize the high rate that most students’ change majors, they throw hissy fits and propose penalties on universities that fail to graduate all students in four years.
A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education broke down the nationwide average "student outcomes" for community college students. At the end of six years, 21.3 percent had completed a two-year degree. 5.6 percent had completed the 2-year degree and gone on to finish a 4-year degree. 9.4 percent left their community college program midway to complete a 4-year degree. Twenty percent were still enrolled after six years. And 43.6 percent had dropped out of community college.
The Chronicle also reported: "Students who get the bachelor’s degree have 42 percent higher earnings than those with only an associate degree...." But any drive to increase the numbers of students in post-high school education is limited by the quality of the schools and the quality of the students.
In states such as Indiana, "community colleges" are branch campuses of either Purdue University of Indiana University. With co-numbered courses, the rigor of these branch campuses can be maintained through parent university oversight.
In Kansas, community colleges are not under the jurisdiction of parent universities and course quality varies dramatically. Some Kansas community colleges have quality faculty and rigorous programs. But some deliver weak courses taught by teachers with half the content preparation of high school teachers—a loophole the Kansas Board of Regents has failed to plug since 2005.
Students also vary in academic ability, work ethic, and vocational interests. The high dropout rate at community colleges includes some students who are simply not "community college-able."
Other students want to be auto mechanics, plumbers, or welders but have been coerced by high schools to attend a university rather than a tech school or community college. And there are others who are “able” but cannot afford to attend. The student who lives at home and is only on a community college campus for classes is really attending High School Part 2. And working 20-to-40 hours a week interferes with an education that should be a full time job.
Even if we funded free community college for all, these data indicate that the numbers who might succeed in graduating with a 2-years associate’s or 4-year bachelor’s degree will not begin to approach the President’s and Governor’s goals—unless we water down the coursework to high school levels.