Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Studying Students Moving into Higher Education . . . to a Community College?!

by Timothy Leinbach - August 19, 2005

This commentary uses the recent monograph by Clifford Adelman, "Moving Into Town – And Moving On: The Community College in the Lives of Traditional-age Students" as a starting point for a discussion of the increasingly important role played by community colleges in American higher education. We discuss three myths about community colleges that are dispelled by Adelman's research: 1) They serve a small proportion of the higher education population; 2) They serve the losers in the race to higher education; and 3) They fail to get their students either to complete degrees or to transfer to four-year colleges. We point out areas for investigation at community colleges not addressed by Adelman that remain important to pursue in light of changing demographics and new patterns of student postsecondary enrollment in this country.

The comprehensive community college has emerged as a major, yet often unheralded, player in the American higher education system.  Whereas public perceptions of postsecondary education in this country are laced with ivy-covered walls in quaint New England towns and sprawling land-grant universities, community colleges are absent in most people’s minds when they think of higher education.  And when these schools or their students are spoken of (other than as the punch line in a late-night television monologue), people use a voice tinged with disappointment or embarrassment, at least in the prestigious inner circles of academia, politics, and business.  Among even those with knowledge of community colleges they are often considered only places where incumbent workers find additional job training.  Yet nearly half of all first time college students start their postsecondary careers in a community college.1  These institutions are an important educational and economic gateway for many students, and the colleges hold a position of status in many communities.  It is time that community colleges earn deserved respect for their role in American higher education and as institutions worthy of examination.

A recent monograph by Clifford Adelman and published by the U.S. Department of Education, Moving Into Town—And Moving On:  The Community College in the Lives of Traditional-Age Students (2005), is significant because it takes the academic role of community colleges seriously.  Adelman gives an illuminating portrait of students in community colleges that, in concert with other research and data, provides convincing evidence of the increasingly important role that these colleges play in the higher education system in this country.  Adelman’s research uses the latest available data— postsecondary transcripts through 2000 of students from the high school class of 1992—in a study of traditional-age (those between the ages of 18 and 24 who entered higher education by 21) community college students.2  In his substantial analysis, Adelman produces a dense and insightful report of the characteristics and enrollment patterns of these students in community colleges, revealing much about the important role these institutions play in higher education.

Among its many findings, this work helps dispel three myths about community colleges:  (a) They serve a small proportion of the higher education population; (b) they serve the losers in the race to higher education; and (c) they fail to get their students either to complete degrees or to transfer to four-year colleges.

Community colleges enroll a vast swath of all young adults in postsecondary education.  Adelman shows that larger proportions of traditional-age college students are attending community colleges than ever before:  Two out of every five graduating seniors who continue on to postsecondary education attend a community college as their first institution after high school.  And many others will enroll in a community college for at least part of their higher education.  Through the open doors of community colleges pass more than half of all persons who attend higher education in this country.  Since the borders of community colleges are more porous than those of most other higher education institutions, students from all levels of the economic and academic hierarchy walk down their halls.

Following from this diversity, community colleges enroll in large numbers neither the lowest tier of economically nor academically challenged students.  Among students in the lowest quartile of household income and those with the poorest high school preparation (many of whom don’t complete high school), very few even attend postsecondary education, at least not as traditional-age students.3  As Adelman and others (Bailey, Leinbach, et al., in press; Grubb, 2002) have shown, the majority of community college students, in fact, come from the middle quartiles of our economic and academic hierarchies.

Despite stories of student failure and woeful graduation rates, community colleges “work” for vast numbers of students.  Adelman shows us that those students who earn a minimum of 10 credits and pass successfully through “gatekeeper” courses have high completion  rates in community college and, significantly, they possess comparable completion rates—once they transfer to four-year institutions—to students who start in four-year institutions.  Adelman does indicate that community colleges serve vast numbers of students who wander through the doors and wander out again with little to show for their perambulations.  Yet many others who enter only briefly, but with the specific intention to supplement their education at their primary (usually four-year) institution, fulfill their objective and leave without a credential, but with the expectation of completing their education elsewhere.

We find Adelman’s emphasis on a highly circumscribed population of students (traditional age with a minimum level of credit accumulation and persistence in college) both a service and a disservice to community colleges.  Among this select population, Adelman finds high rates of student outcome success, which bathes the colleges in a positive light.  However, what do we make of those students who don’t fall into his selective population?  Granted, as Adelman points out, the community college population has been getting younger and most credit-earning first-time students are traditional age.  Furthermore, he argues that 10 earned credits represents a minimum commitment to college.  But community colleges do not have the luxury to dismiss the latter as “ad hoc” or “incidental” enrollees (Adelman’s terms).  These students still exhibit some intent for postsecondary education even if they only drop in (for a class or two) or drop out (after a class or two).  Colleges and researchers cannot ignore their presence in higher education, but must examine their objectives and reasons for their choices in order to serve them better.  

We concur with Adelman that when studying community college students, age is an important analytical category.  Older students, a significant population in community colleges, are very different than traditional-age students in their objectives, educational expectations, course-taking patterns, fields of study, outcomes, and, in many cases, by the deficiencies in their education (Bailey, Leinbach, et al., in press; Prince & Jenkins, 2005).  This older population should neither be lumped in with their younger peers nor dismissed because, despite the recent trend toward younger students in community colleges, they represent a significant proportion of the community college population and, more importantly, community colleges remain the primary higher education destination for older students (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).  We would like to see a similar analysis of older students as Adelman does with traditional-age students.4

Adelman’s study produces other important insights worth noting about community colleges and their students.

His research clearly demonstrates the increasingly common nonlinear pattern of postsecondary student enrollment.  He reveals increases in multi-institutional attendance, including patterns of student “swirling” between colleges, “drop-in” enrollment at community colleges by students based at four-year institutions, and “reverse-transfers” from four-year to community colleges.  Adelman’s description of six archetypes representative of typical community college student enrollment patterns, just by its existence, indicates the increasingly complex nature of student enrollments.  Although most casual observers are still stuck with the perception of a traditional enrollment pathway (immediate post-high school, full-time uninterrupted enrollment until graduation), that pattern is now the minority among undergraduate enrollments.

For students without postsecondary family histories (still the majority in this country), community colleges are the destination of choice (Adelman, 2005, p. 30).  This conduit into higher education cannot be overlooked.  Furthermore, while most racial and ethnic groups are generally represented in community colleges in relative proportion to their overall representation in the U.S. population, Hispanics attend community colleges in disproportionate numbers.  This is notable given that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic segment of the U.S. population.

Yet, despite the appearance of community colleges as the “melting pot” of American higher education, when one examines programs and classrooms one observes much segregation and tracking.  This is one area requiring investigation that Adelman’s data could not reveal.  Program enrollments by credential (certificate, associate, transfer) and major (occupational versus academic, between specific majors) are inequitably distributed across demographic categories (race/ethnicity, SES, age).  Even more disturbing are the vast outcome variations by these categories among community college students.5  Although community colleges’ open doors allow individuals to overcome social and economic barriers to higher education, in other ways these colleges reinforce those barriers by the outcome differentials among their students.  Using data at the state and institutional levels, with a similar analysis as Adelman's, would shed light on these discrepancies and enable community college practitioners to implement change.

Adelman was able to tease out some important enrollment characteristics for achievement at community colleges among the young population:  a strong academic high school curriculum, particularly in math; reaching a 10 credit minimum; logical sequencing of courses; and avoiding no penalty withdrawals and noncredit repeat classes.  These are lessons for community college administrators, as well as for educators in general.  A strong college prep curriculum in high school is important for success in community colleges—it is not just for those students who will be going on to selective four-year colleges.  We must demand the same academic rigor for future community college students as for future Ivy League students, and encourage students to make intelligent course choices in high school and college and stick with them.  High student expectations must exist for all students at community colleges.

A college education is a requirement for obtaining a living-wage job and having career prospects in the current global economy.  Yet we should disown students of the notion that college equates only with four-year institutions.  Talk of meaningful jobs coming with higher education is fine, but a college education should not a priori mean a bachelor’s degree.  Research shows that both associate degrees and certificates produce economic benefits to those who earn them (Bailey, Kienzl, & Marcotte, in press; Grubb, 2002; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).

Community colleges are open-door institutions:  Any student with a high school diploma (and, in some cases, those without) may enroll in credit courses leading to a credential.  In this respect, community colleges are shaped by the students who choose to enter their doors, rather than the institutions selecting students that fit the profile they want to maintain.  Furthermore, colleges are expected to train students to fill local workforce requirements and to adjust their training to accommodate economic change.  To this end, community colleges not only serve their community of students, but also serve the geographic community in which they are situated.  With recent dramatic rises in tuition at four-year colleges, selectivity increasing as four-year schools compete for higher national rankings, and remedial education no longer provided at many public four-year universities, community colleges will necessarily be more integrated into the American higher education landscape.  As Adelman shows, they are taking on greater prominence as a viable postsecondary choice for an increasing number of high school graduates.  Community colleges are a rational (and sometimes only) choice for millions of capable and motivated students moving into higher education who see the value of these institutions for their postsecondary education.


1 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, 1996-2001.  Authors’ calculations.

2 Data are from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 from the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

3 Some of these students may eventually arrive at community colleges as older students requiring adult basic education, ESL, or workforce training.

4 Prince & Jenkins (2005) is a good example looking exclusively at older students.

5 See Bailey, Jenkins, & Leinbach (2005).


Adelman, C. (2005).  Moving into town – and moving on:  The community college in the lives of traditional-age students. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Bailey, T., Jenkins, D., & Leinbach, T. (2005, January). Community college low-income and minority student completion study: Descriptive statistics from the 1992 high school cohort. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bailey, T., Kienzl, G., & Marcotte, D. (in press). The return to a sub-baccalaureate education: The effects of schooling, credentials, and program of study on economic outcomes. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bailey, T., Leinbach, T., Scott, M., Alfonso, M., Kienzl, G., Kennedy, B., & Marcotte, D. (in press). The characteristics of occupational sub-baccalaureate students entering the new millennium. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Grubb, N. (2002). Learning and earning in the middle, part I: National studies of pre-baccalaureate education. Economics of Education Review, 21(4), 299-321.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research, volume 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Prince, D. & Jenkins, D. (2005, April). Building pathways to success for low-skill adult students: Lessons for community college policy and practice from a statewide longitudinal tracking study. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

U.S. Department of Education (2002). Digest of education statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Education (2003). 1995-96 Beginning postsecondary students longitudinal study, second follow-up (BPS: 96/01). [Data CD-ROM]. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 19, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12125, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:34:35 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Timothy Leinbach
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY LEINBACH is a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue