Why Differences in Community Colleges Matter

New Education Department analysis illustrates significant ways that categories of two-year colleges differ on faculty and demographics.
August 13, 2007

A new Education Department analysis of two-year colleges confirms widely held beliefs about them, such as that they enroll many low-income, part-time students and that their student bodies are diverse. But the analysis -- by examining different groups of two-year colleges (including those in the for-profit sector) -- also finds that there are significant differences within the two-year sector, and that these differences result in different demographics, faculty characteristics, enrollment goals and graduation rates.

The analysis arrives at a time of increased interest among some educators, foundation and government officials in using more subtlety and sophistication in looking at community colleges, which have too frequently in the past been assumed to all be similar and to be defined by a single characteristic of not awarding bachelor’s degrees. That plenty of community colleges these days do award such degrees (while others say they never will) is but one example of how the assumption that community colleges are all alike is somewhat like assuming Ohio State University and Oberlin College are similar because they both award bachelor’s degrees and are in the same state.

One sign of the increased interest in classifying community colleges is that last year’s Carnegie Classifications included for the first time subcategories for community colleges, based largely on location (rural, suburban, urban) and size. That system is based largely on the work of Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and David E. Hardy, director of research at the center.

The Education Department’s report is based (with different category names) on a 2001 classification that divided two-year institutions into seven categories:

  • Small public institutions (student headcount under 2,000).
  • Medium-sized public institutions (headcount of 2,000-9,999).
  • Large public institutions (headcount of at least 10,000).
  • Non-profit allied health institutions.
  • Other nonprofit institutions.
  • For-profit degree granting institutions.
  • Other for-profit institutions

In some of the areas examined by the Education Department, comparable data were not available for all categories. But where available, the data point to differentiating characteristics among the different two-year sectors.

In terms of faculty members, across two-year sectors, more find themselves categorized as "instructor" as in any other classification. At degree-granting, for-profit institutions, 81.3 percent of faculty members are instructors. Percentages are smaller in the nonprofit sector, from 34.4 percent at medium-sized community colleges to 53.7 percent at small institutions. Full professors are relatively rare in the two-year sector, with the largest concentration at large publics, 13.6 percent of the faculty. Only 1.7 percent of faculty members at nonprofit allied health institutions have that rank. (Many community colleges, as the report notes, do not use academic ranks.)

Salary data included in the report are a bit out of date, coming from the 2002-3 academic year. But they suggest that where one teaches has a big impact on what one takes home. The best average full-time faculty salary, across rank, was at large publics (which are also more likely than other sectors to be urban): $57,198. By comparison, the average for small publics (frequently in rural areas) was $39,059 and the average for degree-granting for-profit colleges was $29,340.

In numerous ways, student characteristics for different groups of community colleges suggest that many more traditional college students -- those enrolling shortly after high school, full time -- are at smaller two-year institutions. More than half of new students, for instance, at small publics are full-time students enrolled for the first time in a program for which they are seeking a college degree or certificate. At large publics, that percentage is only 29.1 percent.

Students at small publics are also more likely than those at large publics to be under the age of 20 (31.1 percent vs. 19.5 percent), white (82.9 percent vs. 56.4 percent), enrolled full time (45.7 percent vs. 27.0 percent) and financially dependent on their parents (45.1 percent vs. 39.6 percent). Medium-sized institutions are generally in the middle. Women are in the majority across the two-year categories.

Not surprisingly, given the extensive research that students who are better off financially and have fewer outside obligations may be more likely to graduate in a timely fashion, there are also notable differences in students’ graduation goals and attainment. Coming into college, the 1996 cohort was much more likely to aspire to earning a bachelor’s degree or higher if they enrolled at a large public institution. But success rates show a different picture.

While 85.6 percent of 1996 students at large publics aspired to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, only 33.8 percent had earned a certificate or two-year or four-year degree by 2001. Another 19 percent were still enrolled. At small publics, there was a lesser level of initial expectation of earning a bachelor's degree or higher (only 56.3 percent). But by 2001, 45 percent had earned a certificate or degree and another 13.7 percent were still enrolled.

Degree-granting for-profit higher education performed better still, according to the Education Department data. During the same time period, 54.2 percent had earned a degree or certificate.


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