The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges

Mark Schneider and Michelle Yin

Community colleges are an essential component of America’s higher education system. Last year, they enrolled well over 6 million students, a number that continues to grow. Community colleges also are essential to meeting the Obama administration’s goal of having the United States regain its position as the nation with the highest concentration of college-educated adults in the world. Labor force data show that many of the certificates and associate’s degrees awarded by community colleges generate significant returns on the investment that students and taxpayers make in these institutions. And compared to the costs of attending a bachelor’s degree-granting institution, attending a community college is usually far less costly to the student.

Therefore, it is not surprising that community colleges now earn a high level of attention and respect from policymakers across the country. However, not everything is rosy. This report focuses on the high costs of the low retention and completion rates that are far too typical of community colleges.

Community colleges have multiple missions, and their performance ultimately needs to be evaluated on multiple metrics. However, one key mission of community colleges is the awarding of associate’s degrees and certificates to students who enroll with the intention of earning these credentials. Focusing on only first-time, full-time, degree- and certificate-seeking students in community colleges and using data from the U.S. Department of Education, this report shows that community colleges are generating costs to the taxpayer that are usually not part of the discussion of their role in America’s system of higher education.