Community Colleges: Multiple Missions, Diverse Student Bodies, and a Range of Policy Solutions

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Urban Institute


The national commitment to increasing postsecondary educational attainment, combined with growing economic anxiety, has made community colleges the focus of many federal and state policy initiatives. There is good reason for this: by virtue of their nature and reach, community colleges—public institutions of higher education that predominantly award associate degrees and sometimes bachelor’s degrees—are indispensable to meeting national goals for educational attainment as well as for the development of a productive workforce. But no national system of community colleges exists, and national policies to improve opportunity and success at community colleges should reflect their diversity of students, programs, missions, and funding structures. In this report, the authors focus on key variables that differentiate community colleges, and elaborate on their significance for students. They first describe the range of missions and programs across institutions in this sector and explore differences in their student bodies. They then focus on student financing and national policies designed to address both affordability and broader concerns about student success. Finally, they discuss how some community colleges, frequently in partnership with states and other stakeholders, are effectively working on a student success agenda.



educational attainment, community colleges, workforce diversity, academic achievement