Survey: Community college goers talk about missed career goals, whether degree was ‘worth it’

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Ask a person on the first day of college what their college goals are, then 10 years later ask what those goals were – and you may not get the same answer.

Many community college students enroll with big hopes, planning to earn an associate degree or transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s. Yet when former students are asked about their aspirations in hindsight, only 38 percent of them said they’d been seeking a degree when they started, a new study from the Strada Education Foundation found. 

“Both things can be true,” said Thomas Brock, the director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, who was an advisor to the Strada survey. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

“You can have a large majority of students entering community college feeling very committed to earning a degree and feeling that that is their primary reason for being there,” he said. “And an older group of former students who look back and say, ‘Well, you know, I had a variety of goals, and maybe earning a degree is one of them, but not my only goal, or perhaps the most important goal.’ ” 

The Strada survey sought to understand how former students feel about the value of community college by asking them questions about their goals, whether they feel they achieved the goals, and whether it was worth the cost. 

Strada surveyed 1,139 people who attended a community college within the last 10 years; about one-third of them had earned an associate degree. (Across the country, about 36 percent of community college students graduate with that degree within four years, according to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.) 

The survey found that among the 38 percent of people who reported that, at the outset, they’d hoped to earn an associate degree, about 58 percent said they had achieved that goal. But among the 60 percent of respondents who said their enrollment had been motivated by specific career or personal aspirations, rather than simply a degree itself, only 49 percent said they felt those motivations had been fulfilled. 

Former students who said that they entered community college with personal or non-career- related goals reported slightly higher levels of fulfillment, the survey found.

“We’ve got to get tighter at community colleges at making sure we truly understand where every student is coming from,” said Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. “That’s a complex endeavor, because our students are so diverse in terms of purpose, pathway, starting point, ultimate destination, and how they want to use us.”

About 29 percent of all undergraduates go to community colleges, according to spring 2023 enrollment figures from the National Student Clearinghouse. Generally, community college students are older than students who attend four-year colleges, and they often juggle work and family caregiving responsibilities in addition to their academic work. Many community college students also experience financial challenges and face food, housing and transportation insecurity. 

David Clayton, a co-author of the report and senior vice president of research at Strada Education Foundation, said the survey results shine a light on the importance of community colleges and their potential for preparing individuals who want to better themselves and serve their communities. 

“I think of community colleges as community-building colleges,” Clayton said. “They are really the stable, local human capital of communities.” 

Brock said the Strada survey underscores the need to ensure that community college offerings can lead students to careers where they can earn enough money to support their families. He said community colleges are still structured like cafeterias, where there are plenty of options but little information about what each option could lead to or what pathway might lead to the most financially secure future. 

“I think of community colleges as community-building colleges. They are really the stable, local human capital of communities.” 

David Clayton, senior vice president of research, Strada Education Foundation

For example, Brock said that programs in early childhood education may attract students but often lead to jobs with low earning potential. The problem is rooted in a lack of societal value and respect for early childhood educators and caregivers, Brock said. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the community colleges. But students still need to understand what they are getting themselves into when they enroll in those types of programs.

Helping students better understand the choices they are making while enrolled could help increase the value of community college, he said.

The survey found that whether students thought their community college education was worth the cost varied depending on how much they were making after graduation, whether they were the first in their family to attend college and their race or ethnicity. 

The median annual salary for survey respondents was $48,000. About 55 percent of respondents who were earning less than $34,000 per year said their education was worth the cost, compared to 51 percent of people earning between $34,001 and $48,000; 73 percent of those earning between $48,001 and $75,000, and 76 percent of those earning over $75,000. 

About 54 percent of those survey respondents who were the first in their family to attend college said it was worth the cost, compared to 74 percent of the other students. 

And the student perspectives varied on racial lines, too. About 62 percent of white students said their community college education was worth the cost, compared to 60 percent of Black students and 51 percent of Latino students. 

Latinos were also the least likely to say they felt they’d achieved their goals (55 percent compared to 61 percent of Black students and 64 percent of white students). 

Salgado, who oversees a consortium of seven community colleges in Chicago, said that these figures underscore the need to support students outside the classroom. Latino students especially need to be engaged in “critical, caring relationships” with the institution in the form of advising, coaching and mentoring, he said. And they need to have other resources, such as mental health services, available. 

These vulnerable students need community colleges to take a layered approach to student support, Salgado said, which can build a safety net that students are less likely to fall through, and may be more likely to come out of feeling like their education was worth it.

This story about college goals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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