The Community Colleges:
High Promise, High Drop-Out Rates

The problem is stated bluntly in this report from the American Association of Community Colleges, entitled, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future.” The report contains an overly-dramatic framing, with dire assertions such as this opening in the Executive Summary: “The American Dream is imperiled. Upward mobility, the contract between one generation of Americans and the rest, is under siege.” But the basis for the report is undeniable. A section on “Student Success” notes that only 46 percent of community college students pursuing a degree or certificate earn one, transfer to a four-year college, or are still enrolled after six years. Worse, “Nearly half of all community college students entering in the fall term drop out before the second fall term begins.”

There is more. About 60 percent of community college students need remedial course work. Only a fraction (25-39%) of students manages to transfer to a four-year institution. For students who do succeed, too many of them opt for dead-end fields: “Reports suggest an overabundance of both adult and younger students planning to enroll in low-demand fields, and a corresponding shortage of students planning to enroll in high-demand fields paying a family-supporting wage.” Indeed, the authors observe, “Estimates indicate employment opportunities for just 3% of students planning on enrolling in fields such as personal services, employment-related services, regulation and protection, crafts, and the creative and performing arts.”

The report develops several recommended “institutional responses” to improve these abysmal results, including focusing on student success as well as student access, making faculty members think less individualistically and more collectively, and making the curriculum less fragmentary and more cumulative. But while these changes are all intramural, the best driver of improvement is, in fact, off-campus, as three examples of community-college success demonstrate a few pages later. There, we read about community colleges as “entrepreneurs,” each one partnering with local businesses to link education directly to employment. City Colleges of Chicago works directly with Rush University Medical Center and Midway airport to provide a pipeline of graduates tailored to their needs. Jefferson Community and Technical College in Kentucky has teamed up with UPS, the latter helping cover tuition and textbook costs while the former provides coursework designed to meet UPS’s job openings. And Walla Walla Community College has altered its curriculum to match the region’s tremendous growth in wine-making, the College now operating a commercial winery run by the students themselves.

A story just this week in the Wall Street Journal amplifies the approach. It details the manufacturing boom in South Carolina, especially in the Greenville/Spartanburg corridor. Michelin has moved in as well as BMW, General Electric, and “scores of suppliers, chemical companies, and fabricators.” The low-tax and right-to-work climate are a big part of the growth, but so is post-secondary schooling.

From the article:

“Observe the close coordination between these companies and the local colleges that, for years, have supplied the engineers and machinists who run the factories.”

And: “Academics have for years been writing about the unique vitality of manufacturing hubs or ‘clusters’–the co-location and interconnection of related industries and schools.”

And: “The area’s manufacturers have built a symbiosis between factory and school. Walking through GE’s gas-turbine plant some months back, I asked the factory manager how she coped with the nation’s shortage of engineers. ‘We don’t have a shortage,’ she said. She gets plenty from Clemson University, Greenville Technical College and other regional schools.”

And: “Charles Wilson, who teaches at Greenville Tech, says GE is priming the pump with a new apprentice program. Students will study at the school and work at GE, and the company will pick up the tab. GE also sends some of its new hires to the college for a crash course in hands-on manufacturing, he adds.”

Note that Greenville Tech and two other schools mentioned in the article, Tri-County Technical College and Spartanburg Community College, are two-year schools. They have managed to adapt their curriculum to the needs of local employers, and those employers have responded with support. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it requires that people on campus accept the advice of managers and human resources personnel in business. That’s the answer to low student performance: bring the workplace into the curriculum, let the students know a job awaits them after graduation, and accept the fact that for the majority of community college students, workplace readiness is the cardinal principle of learning.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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One thought on “The Community Colleges:
High Promise, High Drop-Out Rates”

  1. Avoid any online-only school or any for-profit school. They are not well accepted in the job market or for transfer to legit universities. There have been widespread reports of students hiring impostors to take online classes for them. That means any online program is questionable. As a former job recruiter, I can say that we would never hire anyone with a for-profit or online school on their resume. I’d avoid schools like Kaplan, U. of Phoenix, Ashford, Capella , Brown-Mackie, Everest, DeVry, APUS, ICS, AIU, Penn- Foster, Walden, South, Argosy, Full Sail, etc.The beet option would be either a public local community college, or if it’s an upper level class, then a public university.

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