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Press Release · November 15, 2006

All Things To All People: The Dilemma Of Community College

California’s System Has Multiple Educational Objectives — But Few Students Graduate or Move on to Four-Year Schools; Troubling Racial, Ethnic Divide

SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 15, 2006 — California’s community colleges are coming up short in achieving two of their most fundamental objectives – graduating students with two-year associate’s degrees or transferring students to four-year colleges and universities, according to a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Fewer than one-tenth of community college students who concentrate on associate’s degree courses eventually graduate with these degrees. Only about one-quarter of those who concentrate on transfer courses eventually transfer to four-year institutions. Attrition probably accounts for most of the low graduation and transfer rates: One-third of degree- and transfer-focused students do not return after their first year, according to the detailed analysis which examines student data from 1997 to 2003.

Moreover, there are stark racial and ethnic disparities. For example, the transfer rate to four-year colleges for Asian and Pacific Islander students is double what it is for black, Latino, and American Indian students. “This is sobering because a primary function of community college is to broaden access to higher education,” says PPIC research associate Ria Sengupta, who co-authored the study with Christopher Jepsen, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. “Unfortunately, the groups that are gaining the least from community college are the same ones that are historically underserved by other higher education systems.”

The findings are even more troubling in the context of overall enrollment: With more than 2.5 million students enrolled at over 100 campuses, California’s community colleges account for more than 70 percent of the state’s public higher education enrollment. Moreover, for many racial, ethnic, and disadvantaged populations, community colleges are considered the major pathway to a college education.

One reason for the less-than-stellar outcomes may be that the system is grappling with its many educational functions. Californians have many different reasons for attending community college: About half (48%) take courses that are transferable to four-year schools, 16 percent take vocational and occupational courses, and 14 percent take basic skills and English as a Second Language courses. While this diversity is in keeping with the state’s mission, it presents inherent difficulties. “Community colleges play a very difficult role as a kind of catchall, responsible for a vast group of people, possibly without adequate funding,” says Sengupta.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.