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PROOF POINTS: How much does it cost to produce a community college graduate?

PROOF POINTS: How much does it cost to produce a community college graduate?


Jill Barshay
March 6, 2023
Community colleges say they can’t help the neediest students get through college successfully without more funding. But these institutions, which educate 10 million students a year or 44 percent of all undergraduates, have a terrible track record; fewer than half their students end up earning degrees. Obviously, all those college dropouts aren’t improving local work forces. And state lawmakers aren’t keen to write community colleges blank checks without accountability.
The problem is that no one really knows how much it costs to educate a community college student, or exactly how much more should be spent on the neediest ones, from young adults who are the first in their families to go to college, known as first generation students, to older adults who are juggling a job and children of their own along with school, often called “nontraditional” students.
A first attempt at finding an answer was the publication of a paper in October 2022 that examined the costs of Texas community colleges. The analysis was conducted for the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, by a team of researchers from the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization, and education finance specialists from Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee. (The American Institutes for Research is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.*)
The team applied the same cost analysis used in K-12 education to the community college context. In K-12 education, cost modeling helps states design per-pupil funding formulas that give more weight to English language learners, low-income students and students with disabilities. The idea is to give needier students more resources.
In the Texas analysis of six years of student records across all 50 community colleges, the researchers noticed that two categories – first generation students and students older than 24 – were the least likely to hit various academic milestones, such as passing remedial courses, completing the first 15-credit semester hours, or earning a degree. At the same time, the researchers noticed that Texas community colleges were spending more on these students. Colleges that serve higher percentages of at-risk students had higher per pupil expenditures than colleges that serve less needy students.
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