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Report: Community College Student Attrition Poses High Cost for Taxpayers

Vast sums of taxpayer dollars are being wasted at community colleges because of the large numbers of students who drop out during their first year, an education researcher argues in a new report released today.

Dr. Mark Schneider, Vice President of American Institutes for Research and author of the report, titled “The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges,” says the high dropout rate within community colleges threatens to undermine the Obama administration’s goal to have the United States regain its position as the nation with the highest proportion of college-educated adults in the world.

“You can’t cross the finish line if you don’t finish the first lap, and most students drop out during the first year,” Schneider said during a phone conference this week with reporters, in reference to first-year, full-time community college students.

About three-fifths of students entering community college require remedial education, and only about a third of those will eventually graduate.

“So what I tried to do was show the high costs of low success rates of community colleges, and the purpose of calling attention to these numbers is to really say: Look, (community colleges) have a hard task in front of them, they have hard-to-educate students, but we have to pay attention to this problem because it’s too expensive not to pay attention to it.”

The report says that for each of the last five years that were studied, from the 2004-05 to 2008-09 school years, about one-fifth of full-time students who began their studies at a community college dropped out before the second year. For perspective, in 2009, the report says, more than 800,000 first-time, full-time students “stood at the starting gate,” but their dropout rates were expected to follow the same pattern that it did in previous years.

The price tag the report puts on the problem of first-year dropouts: Nearly $4 billion from the 2004-05 through the 2008-09 academic years. That figure is based on three primary sources of funding:

— Nearly $3 million in state and local governmental appropriations for colleges to help pay for students who ultimately did not come back after their first year.

— More than $240 million in student grants from states to support students who did not return to their community college for a second year.

— More than $660 million in federal grants for students who did not return to their community college for a second year.

Dr. Christopher M. Mullin, Program Director for Policy Analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, said in a statement provided to Diverse that Schneider’s study has “serious shortcomings” and is based on “faulty assumptions.”

Contrary to what the study says, leaving a community college is not a permanent decision [drop-out].   

“Many students do in fact re-enroll, and are known as ‘stop-outs,'” as opposed to dropouts, Mullin said. He said that federal data indicate that 62 percent of those who leave a community college in the first year re-enroll at an institution of higher education within the next five years.

“Furthermore, the authors overstate the cost of those community college students who do leave college permanently after their first year,” Mullin said. “The authors assume that all these students receive the average amount of student aid, when more than one-third of all community college students received no student aid.

“This assumption overstates the impact of student financial aid costs as presented,” Mullin stated. 

Schneider said he did not calculate what percentage of overall expenditures on community colleges the $4 billion figure represents. He maintains the $4 billion figure is unacceptably high and calls for community colleges to reform themselves to improve their completion rates.

“Given the central role that community colleges play in the nation’s plans to regain its position as the number one country in the world when it comes to college-educated adults, and given the increasing fiscal difficulties facing individual states and the nation as a whole, it is clear that ‘business as usual’ is far too expensive,” the report states. “Better ways are needed to ensure that the students who enter a community college expecting to earn an associate’s degree or a certificate finish the first lap and ultimately cross the finish line.”

The report also offers readers a web site — — that provides a way to explore the situation on a state-by-state and campus-by-campus basis.

The report comes at a time when community colleges are receiving unprecedented attention from the White House, coupled with major cash infusions from the federal government.

However, the way Schneider sees it, bigger investments in community colleges are wholly unwarranted.

“We’re at the point where investing in the current business as usual is at a dead end,” Schneider said. “We can’t keep pouring money into these institutions without trying to figure how to make them better.”

Actually, several efforts are already underway to do just that. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, has invested $100 million to improve remedial education at community colleges, and $35 million in an initiative called Completion by Design.

Schneider’s report was underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

His report acknowledges the “ongoing debate” about why community colleges have such low success rates, from lack of college-readiness to lack of knowledge about what kinds of remedial education programs are most effective with various types of students, to lack of support services.

“Although we do not contribute to this body of research, our data suggest that all stakeholders need to pay far more attention to the high costs of the low community college retention and completion rates,” the report states. “Simply saying that the nation needs more community college graduates and continuing to pump more money and more students into the existing system is not the answer.”

In addition to revamping their remedial education courses, Schneider said community colleges should give serious thought to reconfiguring their schedules to accommodate the diverse needs of students and devoting more resources to retention services.

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