Recent reports and news stories have focused on shameful college graduation rates at community colleges. In New York State, only a few of the state’s community colleges graduate more than 30 percent of their students in three years. At Long Island’s Nassau Community College, the largest in the state system, the 2007 graduation rate figure is 18.5 percent, down from 25 percent in 2001.
Why do so many students not complete associate degrees? The commonly assumed reasons are rising tuition, weak high school academic preparation, and weak advisement. An alternative hypothesis is that students are rationally deciding that the associate’s degree does not offer them the labor-market advantage that it did to previous generations.
How many job postings say “associate’s degree required”? Not many. The bachelor’s degree is the credential that matters in today’s economy. At some point, those who decided previously that a four-year degree was not for them, decide that a two-year degree does not offer considerable tangible benefits. Perhaps those who dropout of community college programs choose on-the-job training opportunities or certificate or online programs that offer them concrete skills instead, i.e., taxi-driving, auto repair, computer repair, building trades, MSOffice, bookkeeping, early childhood education, etc.
To test the hypothesis, I’m eager for a study capturing the voices of community college phase-outs and asking why they made the choices they did. The Gates Foundation did a 2006 study giving voice to high school dropouts titled “The Silent Epidemic: Perspective of High School Dropouts.” The vast majority of respondents said that a high school degree is important, and if they had to do it over again, they would have stayed in school. Would community college dropouts say the same thing about an associate’s degree?