02/07/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Improving Completion Rates of Minority Community College Students Tranferring to Four-Year Colleges

(This is the first of a three-part series on how to improve completion rates of minority community college students who transfer to a senior institution. This first entry will establish the need to improve completion rates, while the second and third parts of the series will discuss possible national, state and local solutions.)

As the United States seeks to recapture its prominent economic position in the world, one policy issue that has received significant interest within the government and other circles is the completion rate of college students. America once had the largest percentage of college graduates among the nations of the world. Today, we are only 12th in the percentage of adults ages 25-34 with a college degree.

President Barack Obama has made it a national priority to regain our number one position in college degree attainment rates by 2020. The federal government, along with many other public and private organizations, is developing partnerships, strategies and programming to reach that goal. Paralleling the president's commitment, the College Board has issued a goal of having 55 percent of all adults ages 25-34 earning either a two- or four-year degree by 2025. Although the figure has improved since 2000 (from 38.1 to 41.1 percent), the current rate of growth will only increase the number of adults 25-34 with a degree to 46 percent by 2025, still short of goal.

While we clearly need to improve college completion rates across the board, one group that is of special interest to policymakers is minority students -- largely first-generation, low-income, and urban -- whose college completion rates continue to fall well below the average.

The Economics of an Educated Citizenry

In the past, social activists have argued for improving the educational achievement of minorities and other underrepresented populations based on moral grounds -- in a nation committed to fairness, equality and opportunity, improving the lives of those less fortunate is perceived by most citizens as the right thing to do. Today, as minority populations, especially the Latino community, grow in size and influence in the United States, there is a realization that social stability and economic necessity must be factors added to the existing moral imperative.

Consider the data:

• By 2018, 63 percent of all American jobs will require a two- or four-year college education.

• Although more than 19 million Americans went to college this past fall, without improving college completion rates we will be short three million college graduates in 2018.

• At the same time, someone having a college degree reduces public expenses by $1 million over a lifetime in avoided public costs (unemployment compensation, welfare, public health).

• Raising the four-year college completion rates of minority students has enormous economic impact for individuals as well as local and state tax revenues. In Louisiana, annual personal income would be $10 billion higher if minority students achieved at the same rate as the general population. In Connecticut, that figure is calculated at $8 billion; in both these and other states, the impact on state revenue coffers would be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Community College Student Completion Rates

According to the Education Trust ("Charting a Necessary Path," Fall 2009), only 12 percent of minority community college students transfer to a four-year institution within four years of enrolling in a community college, and only 7 percent complete a bachelor's degree within 10 years. In terms of community college degree completion, a stepping stone to eventual success at a four-year institution, minority student completion rates lag the average for all students by 9 percentage points (24 to 33 percent). In terms of income levels, only 11 percent of low-income community college students transfer to a four-year institution, compared to 48 percent of higher-income students. In institutions served by the National Association of System Heads, only 7 percent of minority students transfer from a community college and complete a bachelor's degree within six years. And nationally, only 44 percent of transfer students completed their bachelor's degree within six years, versus 63 percent for native students.

What Factors Serve as Barriers to Completion?

Finances. The cost of attending college, even the less-expensive route of a community college, continues to outpace growth in family incomes. At the same time, federal and state support of students (financial aid) and institutions (state funding) has eroded. Nationally, the level of state aid per full-time equivalent student decreased 14 percent in the past 30 years; in some states, the loss is even more dramatic. The result is that students must attend college part time to work and pay for tuition, at the same time being saddled by student loans that are now outpacing credit card debt. This financial burden is especially felt by low-income and minority students. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Jan. 8, 2012), 69 percent of African Americans who dropped out of college left due to student loan debt, compared to 43 percent of white students.

Part-time status of low-income and minority college students. National data is clear that part-time students in community colleges and in four-year institutions have lower persistence and completion rates than students attending full time. ("Time is the enemy of college completion," says a Complete College America report. "The longer it takes, the more life gets in the way of success.") Interestingly, minority students with Pell Grants perform on even terms with students from all backgrounds. Clearly, at the same time that the financial burden facing low-income and minority students translates into a significant barrier to degree completion, increasing financial aid so that students can attend full-time can dramatically increase completion rates.

Institutional factors. In a 2005 study, "The Effects of Institutional Factors in the Success of Community College Students," the Community College Research Center at Columbia University cites other factors that decrease completion rates among community college students, including the size of institutions (larger institutions having lower rates); the use of part-time faculty (vs. full-time); location (certain states are simply doing a better job); and the level of instructional and student services resources.

(to be continued. . . )