Community College Students Taking Loads of Unneeded Courses

The Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College, the state’s largest community college.

A cornerstone of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s strategy for making higher education more affordable involves the state’s 23 community colleges. First and foremost, community colleges charge lower tuition than four-year colleges. Second, college-transfer programs enable students to combine two years of relatively inexpensive community college with two years of more costly four-year college to earn a four-year degree. And third, the dual-enrollment program allows students to earn community college credits in high school.

None of these is working as well as it should, concludes the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) in a comprehensive study released today: “Operations and Performance of the Virginia Community College System.”

In the 2015-16 academic year, Virginia’s community colleges enrolled about 111,000 full-time-equivalent students. But only 39% earned a degree or credential that would further their education or improve their prospects in the job market, the study revealed.

There is a cost — to both the student and the state — when a student enrolls in community college but does not attain a credential. The median number of credits earned by non degree-completing students was 42 — the equivalent of nearly a year and a half of full-time attendance at a community college. States the study:

In FY16, a single community college credit cost a student $142.50 in tuition and fees, and cost the state $106.85 in general fund appropriations. At these rates, those 42 credits would cost a student approximately $5,985, either out-of-pocket, or through state, federal, or institutional financial aid. The cost in state general fund appropriations would be about $4,490, bringing the total investment to approximately $10,470 for an individual student.

The problem is most acute among certain groups: older, part-time students, lower-income students, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and students who require remedial course work in English and math.

The community college system permits open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma. But a majority of students in JLARC’s cohort analysis needed at least one remedial course at some point in their community college studies. Only one-third of students who enrolled in remedial courses ended up earning a credential within seven years, compared to almost half who did not require remedial courses.

JLARC suggested that many community-college students could benefit from academic advising. Ideally, with better guidance, they would pay for fewer courses and be more likely to successfully complete their degree or certification in a more timely manner.

The study team also found that the dual enrollment program is not clearly reducing the time or resources that students invest in earning higher education credentials. Dual enrollment students typically accumulate more credits than their non-enrollment peers.

Finally, the study called into question the utility of the college-transfer program:

Transfer students who earned a bachelor’s degree took longer and earned more credits than their counterparts who started college in a four-year institution. Transfer agreements between the state’s community colleges and four-year institution have proliferated, are not kept up to date, and are not sufficiently accessible to students, making them difficult for students to understand and leverage.

JLARC suggested that streamlining the transfer agreements and making them more accessible would save time and money.

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One response to “Community College Students Taking Loads of Unneeded Courses

  1. Well.. I read through the agency responses which included way more folks like the Department of Education and SCHEV and Delegate Orrock which basically were along the lines of “we agree” and “thank you” .. but I’m not surprised that there are issues with not everyone achieving a “credential”.. would like to see how that is defined.

    Many folks attend classes as a kind of “continuing education”.. say law enforcement officers wanting to get some some courses under their belt.. others like teachers trying to get their required continuing education credits.. others building credits towards a higher degree,etc.

    Others are just taking courses with no real longer-term goal.. some for edification.. others still casting about for what directions to follow… some taking courses to bring them up to spec on stuff they do not maser in high school – remediation.

    The dual-enrollment program needs some serious reform – I agree…

    but Community Colleges, like other higher ed – has a product to sell and the more of that product they sell.. the better off they are financially and, in turn, the selection of courses they can offer, hire instructors, etc…

    The report also mentions affordability concerns…

    All in all.. any institution should be critically examined and a list of recommendations generated and plans to implement.

    I still think Community Colleges are the GEMs of Higher Ed in Virginia and serve far more people far more equitably than 4-year higher ed and are far more deserving of additional function from the State because they do serve a lot more income groups – with a far lower bar for enrollment…and upward mobility for many – who otherwise would have more limited options.

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