By Benjamin Skinner, Justin Ortagus and Melvin Tanner
Community colleges are designed to make college more accessible, yet 6 out of every 10 community college students cannot reap the full rewards of higher education because they do not earn their degree. For graduates, rewards often include making more money. For society, the reward is citizens who are more likely to vote, volunteer and pay more in taxes.
Among community college students who drop out, there are a few who are really close to being finished. Nationally, about 10% of all students who leave college without a degree are only a few credits shy of graduation. They are also the most likely to re-enroll and graduate. Some colleges are trying to identify former students and persuade them to come back using a variety of methods that include data analytics and discounts on tuition.
Using these tools, however, isn’t always easy. Community college students who leave early rarely tell school administrators why they left. If colleges heard directly from students about why they drop out, the schools could help them with targeted resources. Or, better yet, they might be able to prevent students from dropping out in the first place.
In our recent peer-reviewed study, we contacted over 27,000 former students of five large and diverse community colleges in Florida who had left in the prior four years without a degree. They had stopped taking classes despite having a C average or better and at least half the credits necessary for an associate degree. We asked them to choose from a list of possible reasons explaining why they left. As researchers focused on issues of access and equity in community colleges, we identified 11 of the most important reasons they gave.
1. Costs were too high
Direct financial costs were the most common reasons for early exit from community colleges, even though the colleges are typically more affordable than four-year schools. Over half of the former students in our survey, 53%, said they left due to the cost of tuition and fees. An additional 25% cited the cost of textbooks. Our findings are in line with prior studies of students at four-year colleges that found students also sometimes leave college due to an inability to pay tuition and fees.
2. Living expenses were also too high
Students sometimes drop out for financial reasons that have little to do with school. For instance, the cost of rent, utilities, health care, child care and food may simply be too much to bear in addition to going to school. This is reflected in the 48% of former students who told us living expenses were a reason they left early.
3. Ran out of financial aid
Just under 43% of students told us they left college because they lost eligibility for financial aid. Students can lose aid for a variety of reasons, such as if they fail to keep their grades up or do not finish their degree fast enough.
4. Unpredictable schedules
One out of every five college students is a parent, and nearly half of those students go to a community college. These students face many demands on their time related to work and child care. Among the leavers, 33% said they left because of problems with unpredictable schedules when it comes to work and family obligations. Those between the ages of 26 and 49 were twice as likely as younger and older students to say that unreliable child care contributed to their leaving. Women of all ages were more than twice as likely as men to cite child care difficulties.
5. Students lacked key information
Many community college students say they do not know what they need to do in order to graduate. They also say their academic advising is limited or impersonal. About 24% of former students stopped going to school in part because they were unsure about which courses to take next.
6. Students wrongly thought they had holds placed on their accounts
About 16% of former students said they could not register due to a financial hold on their school account. However, our study was designed so that it did not include any students who had holds that would keep them from taking classes. This indicates that former students had incorrect information, which is possibly due to limited time with advisers or miscommunication. Hispanic and Black former students were over two and three times more likely, respectively, than white former students to say they could not register due to a financial hold.
7. Health emergencies
About 17% of all former students said that a health emergency contributed to their early exit. The percentage was even higher – over 20% – for those over 50.
8. Students got a new job or lost their job
Most part-time community college students work while in college. For that reason, changes to their work life can affect their ability to go to school. About 34% of all former students said they left school due to a switch from part-time to full-time employment. About 15% exited early due to a promotion, and 13% left because they needed to take on a second job. Conversely, 12% said they left early because they lost their job. Men were more likely than women – 22% to 13% – to say that a change in career led them to leave college before earning their degree.
9. Math and science courses were too difficult
Many community college students, for a variety of reasons, are not prepared to take college-level classes. So many struggle to meet math and science requirements. Indeed, 25% of former students told us they left college because they found the math and science courses too hard.
10. Students lacked strong connections to campus
Students often leave college when they do not feel a strong connection to the school or its community. Of the former students we surveyed, 11% said they left in part because they did not have many friends on campus, while 8% said they did not feel welcome on campus.
11. Online coursework and unreliable internet access
Though we surveyed students before the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed campuses and shifted much learning online, many former students indicated that factors related to internet access and online coursework led them to leave without a degree. About 25% of former students cited difficulty learning on their own in an online environment. Another 24% stated they did not have enough interaction with the online course instructor, and 9% said they did not have enough interaction with their peers in online courses. About 7% of all former students and 11% of Black former students said unreliable internet access led them to leave school.
What could be done
Community college students who drop out of school for any period of time are much less likely to graduate than their peers who stay in school. To increase the number of students who earn their degree, it would be beneficial if community colleges sought to keep students from leaving in the first place. We believe a few practices might help.
Target financial resources: Community colleges may wish to provide targeted financial assistance to students who are close to finishing their degree but are running out of financial aid. This last bit of support may be what these students need to cross the finish line.
Provide better information and advising: In order for students to better understand which classes they need to take to graduate – or whether they are still eligible to take classes – community colleges must ensure all students have accurate information. This is particularly important for equitable outcomes for students from different backgrounds.
Strengthen the online learning experience: Finally, for students to feel supported and connected to their instructors and peers, community colleges should continue to improve online course offerings. Community colleges with strong online offerings may be able to offer students the flexibility they need to complete their degree as they also work and take care of their families.
Benjamin Skinner is Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Policy, Justin Ortagus is Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration and Policy, and Melvin Tanner is a Senior Research Analyst at the Office of Institutional Planning and Research, all three at the University of Florida.
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