As the fall semester begins, administrators and policymakers are rightfully focused on getting college students back to class after a year and a half of interrupted learning and declining enrollment. Community colleges, in particular, are looking to boost their numbers after a 9.5 percent decrease last spring. Yet enrolling students is merely step one: To fully benefit from their education, community college students must stay enrolled and graduate.
An associate’s degree can increase graduates’ earnings by 30 percent, and these institutions serve a substantial number of historically excluded student populations, offering an important pathway to economic equity. Yet most students who enroll in community college never graduate. These students pay a steep price — both in lost earnings and, in some cases, substantial debt — but do not benefit from the income boost that accompanies a degree.