The Truth is….Most Community College Students Never Graduate

Let’s face it, student persistence has been a major issue in higher education for a while.  This lack of student persistence in community colleges has recently drawn attention from people outside of higher education.  In November 2015, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that only 38.1% of the students that started at a community college in 2009 made it to graduation.  The National Center for Education Statistics published similar results in its July 2016 Data Point.  The alarming thing about it is no one is talking about it.  We hear college administrators discuss enrollment numbers all the time, but those same voices fall silent when asked about graduation rates.  Why is that?

Some students may not persist on their journey toward graduation.

Some students may not persist on their journey toward graduation.

The Focus on Enrollment

I think it comes down to funding.  Under many community college funding systems, enrollment determines how much money a college receives each year.  Colleges are rewarded for building their enrollments and very little was said about how many students actually graduate from those institutions.  This indifference to student success and graduation seems to be changing.  In recent years, community colleges have come under greater scrutiny from accreditors, state and federal governments, and private organizations because of their failure to produce graduates.  What do you think would happen if funding were directly related to graduation?

Performance-based Funding

One of the potential ways to coax community colleges into focusing on student success and graduation is through Performance-Based Funding (PBF).  The thought of PBF strikes fear in the hearts of some community college administrators.  It means that community colleges will have to care about student success and therefore graduation.  Performance-based funding brings with it a set of unique problems as well:

1.      How do we define performance-based Funding?

2.      What ‘performance’ will be measured?

3.      Who will measure this ‘performance?’

4.      Will this performance-based system create some unintended consequences like grade inflation or the       “weeding-out” of students who are more likely to be unsuccessful?


Community colleges were created to provide greater access to higher education and they have done very well in that regard.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 39% of all college students attended community colleges in 2014.  This means that 6.2 million students who made the decision to attend a two-year institution have a very low chance of success.  We have removed many of the barriers that prevented students from entering higher education.  Now, we have to finish the job.  We have to work to remove those barriers that prevent community college students from persisting to graduation.


There are a number of barriers that may prevent students from persisting to graduation.

There are a number of barriers that may prevent students from persisting to graduation.

There are a number of barriers that may prevent community college students from persisting to graduation.  Many new students come to the college unprepared and have to take a number of developmental/remedial courses before taking a single college-level class.  Others have to work and can only attend part-time.  They have families and children, they tend to be older, and many are the first in their family to attend college.  All of these barriers may be compounded by the financial burden they may affect these students.  They also have to find a way to pay for tuition, books, in other indirect costs like school supplies and having to alter or cut back on work hours to attend classes.

What Can Community Colleges Do?

Well, what we cannot do anymore is ignore the student persistence problem we have in our community colleges.  If stakeholders are calling for more accountability when it comes to student success and graduation, community colleges have to shape up or become obsolete.  Many of the barriers that community college students face fall outside of what the college can do.  However, some barriers can be reduced or removed immediately.

1.      Create guided pathways.

2.      Examine alternatives to development education.

3.      Start college planning earlier with parents and students.

4.      Reduce the time to obtain a credential (Stackable certificates that lead to a degree).

5.      Develop college support systems for first-generation college students and others that may have a                higher risk of being unsuccessful.

The people that come to our community colleges do so to have a better quality of life.  We owe it to our students to do all that we can to increase persistence and help them obtain their college goals and/or to graduate.


Tell me in the comments.


Dr. Christopher J. Hall

Interim President, #Highered Educator, blogger, Volunteer, Rotarian, Coach, #Photographer, Techie, Speaker, 2014 SC Gov's Prof. of the Yr.  #comm_college #BeBetter