Are community colleges beneficial in general?

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The Rochester area is home to a number of community colleges such as Monroe Community College, Finger Lakes Community College, and Genesee Community College. Even though student enrollment in these institutions has recently been falling, they still educate large numbers of local and in-state students. Nationwide, two-year community colleges enroll almost half of all first-time undergraduates.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

Given the sheer volume of students who pass through community colleges and given that there are many relatively inexpensive, four-year college options available to students, it makes sense to ask whether, in a general sense, community colleges are contributing to the society in which we live.

The answer to this question is not straightforward because there are two basic forces at work and they pull in opposite directions. First, given the fact that the gap between the earnings of high school and college graduates has almost doubled since the early 1980s, a number of policy makers have focused on community colleges with the aim of expanding educational access. The hope here is that this expansion will increase the likelihood of post-secondary attainment and upward mobility in society for a larger number of young Americans. When one accounts for the fact that low-income students disproportionately attend community colleges, this hope is perhaps more laudable than it may seem at first blush.

Second, however, even if policy succeeds in increasing enrollment in two-year community colleges, it may also be the case that greater access to two-year community colleges diverts college-bound students from directly matriculating into generally better-resourced four-year institutions. Empirically, is this “diversion” argument salient? The answer, it turns out, is yes.

The available data show that as far as community college students are concerned, degree completion and upward transfer rates are both low. Specifically, although 81 percent of community college students begin their education with the intention of earning a bachelor’s degree, only 33 percent actually transfer to a four-year institution within six years, and only 14 percent actually complete a bachelor’s degree.

In contrast, 60 percent of students who begin college directly at a four-year institution complete a bachelor’s degree over the same time period. In addition, there are noteworthy gaps in the outcomes of two-year and four-year students even when one adjusts for observable differences in test scores and demographic backgrounds.

Given this positive “expansion” force and the negative “diversion” force, what we would like to know is the net picture. Specifically, does the expansion force dominate the diversion force or is the converse true? Although many researchers have shed light on this question, the evidence thus far has been mixed, in part because of the difficulties associated with developing new econometric tools that are needed to credibly answer the “net picture” question.

These methodological challenges have largely been overcome in exciting new research by John Mountjoy. His painstaking research with large amounts of data yields three noteworthy results. First, increased access to two-year colleges enhances both educational attainment and earnings on net. Second, despite this positive net impact, approximately 33 percent of all two-year entrants are diverted from four-year entry and these entrants complete less education. In other words, the “diversion” force is definitely present and its impact is not negligible. Finally, the previous two results are driven significantly by women and not men, and the expanded access to two-year community colleges boosts the mobility and the earnings of low-income students.

Even though policies are needed to minimize the negative impact of the “diversion” force, expanding access to two-year community colleges has a “democratizing” effect on higher education in that students who would otherwise not attend college at all are now induced to attend and thereby improve their own mobility and earnings prospects.

In sum, community colleges are beneficial in general and Rochester-area residents ought to be proud of our community colleges that have a history of altering lives and ameliorating the economic and social mobility of young Rochesterians specifically and New Yorkers generally.

Amitrajeet Batabyal is a Distinguished Professor, the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics, and the Interim Head of the Sustainability Department, all at RIT, but these views are his own. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “Are community colleges beneficial in general?

  1. I am happy to see that the article on community colleges by Professor
    Batabyal was based upon research and came to the conclusion that these
    colleges are worthwhile. It mentioned in-state and local students,
    however international students are also enrolled. During the last
    academic year, Monroe Community College had 84 international students
    representing 32 countries and over the years, has had students from more
    than 60.

    I would also like to clear up an error contained in one of the replies.
    It is possible to enroll in a community college without a high school
    diploma or equivalent. Students without these credentials can enroll on
    a non-matriculated basis, and after successfully completing prescribed
    courses, they can enter into a degree or certificate program and apply
    to the NYS Education Department for a High School Equivalency Diploma.
    It is not an easy route, but with enough determination and the right
    help, it is possible. Also, community colleges offer some non-credit
    courses and vocational programs that do not require a high school

  2. They certainly are! But in order to attend a community college one needs to graduate from high school. In urban Rochester that leaves 50% out and the other 50% poorly prepared for that community college journey. When is the RCSD going to give kids a chance in this world? It’s borderline cruel if not criminal.

  3. While this information is interesting, the “diversion” information is incomplete. At a time when a substantial number of 4-year grads are doing jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree, determining whether diversion is good or bad is a non-trivial research task. (The answer is probably, “good for some, bad for some.”) If someone completes an associate’s degree or other community college-based credential and concludes that that provides what they need for a job they’re satisfied with, they may be better off than spending two more years in college, spending money rather than earning it, for a degree of uncertain value.

    While I’m a strong believer in education, including college, different tracks work for different people. My nephew is at community college learning to become a pilot. He could go on to a 4-year college for further aviation training, but it’s not necessary; it probably makes more sense for him to seek employment once he has his associate’s degree (by which time he’ll also have a commercial license, flight instructor certification, instrument rating, etc.). He’ll be on track for an airline job in a couple of years. Nothing negative about that.

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