Community colleges are becoming increasingly popular options for young people looking to save money on their college degrees. However, despite their initial college plans, community college students are statistically less likely to earn a degree within six years than students who enroll immediately in a four-year college or university.
A report released this week by Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy institution, looks at the role of financial obligations in college completion rates for community college students under the age of 24. The report points to two things students can do to beat the odds and achieve their college goals: enroll full-time and work no more than part-time.
One of the key findings highlighted in the report is that most community college students have thousands of dollars in unmet financial need, even after accounting for grants and student loans. The lowest income quartile of students had $7,147 in financial need on average after grant aid, and $6,544 in need after accounting for all financial aid. Virtually all students in this quartile had unmet need and 92 percent of these students still had unmet need after all scholarships, grants, and loans. The overwhelming majority of students in the bottom 50% of family income had unmet financial need, averaging nearly $5,000 even after all financial aid.
Based on the substantial amount of unmet financial need these students had, it's not surprising that most community college students worked through school. The report shows 84 percent of young community college students worked while attending college in 2007-2008, and 61 percent of these students worked more than 20 hours a week, despite research showing that students who work fewer than 15 hours a week are the most successful academically. Community college students are more likely than students at state colleges to work their way through school and to work more hours while attending school. Of students who worked, 63 percent said they would not be able to pay for college without work, and 72 percent said they worked to help pay their college costs.
Community college students are also increasingly likely to enroll part-time, despite full-time enrollment being a key predictor of college success. Over half of community college students enrolled part-time in 2007-2008, compared to 19 percent of state college students, and most of these students worked more than part-time, primarily at low-wage jobs that are unrelated to their major or field of study. Just over half of students who initially enrolled part-time left college after 3 years without earning a degree or certificate, compared to only 14 percent of students who initially enrolled full-time.
This report adds to the growing body of research suggesting that borrowing heavily or relying entirely on income from work are not the best way to pay for college. In order to succeed in community college or any higher education institution, students should strongly consider attending full-time and only working part-time. To do this, saving for college or finding additional financial aid may be required. Applying for and winning scholarships can become a major component of college success--not only can scholarships help students meet their full financial need, but students who earn scholarships are also more likely to earn a college degree.