Bachelor’s Degrees Can Boost Community College Enrollment: Report

Enrollment increased for first-generation and adult students after community colleges adopted four-year degree programs.
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  • Overall enrollment increased at community colleges after they adopted four-year baccalaureate programs, according to a new report.
  • The report found that enrollment among first-generation students and adult students also increased.
  • Twenty-four states allow community colleges to adopt baccalaureate programs.

Community colleges across the country are expanding to offer bachelor's degree programs — and that could lead to an enrollment boost, according to a new report.

Jeremy Wright-Kim, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, analyzed enrollment data from hundreds of public colleges and found that enrollment increased overall after community colleges adopted four-year degree programs.

Fall enrollment increased by 6-9%, according to Wright-Kim's data study. Full-time enrollment increased by 11-16%.

"This suggests that the availability of community college baccalaureates may not only increase institutional enrollment, but also encourage increased enrollment intensity," Wright-Kim wrote.

Adopting four-year degree programs also led to increased enrollment for low-income students and adult students, according to the report. However, Wright-Kim notes the programs' effects on students from historically underrepresented racial groups "are less clear."

West Virginia was the first state to authorize four-year degrees at community colleges in 1989. The trend has since expanded to more than 24 states, according to a 2021 New America study.

BestColleges previously reported that students who graduate from community colleges with bachelor's degrees are more likely to be first-generation students from low-income households or historically underrepresented racial backgrounds.

Wright-Kim notes that community college baccalaureate (CCB) programs have detractors, including opponents who say the programs will hurt nearby four-year institutions. Others have concerns that community colleges' "growth into baccalaureate-granting institutions and emphasis on workforce-oriented credentials may disrupt the focus on other aspects of their historic missions."

Wright-Kim wrote that existing research doesn't provide much evidence that community colleges diverge from their traditional values and services when they provide four-year degree programs. However, there tend to be shifts in tuition and fees, expectations and hiring for faculty and staff, and academic programming.

"There is no consistent evidence that CCB adoption leads to institutional divestment from serving the populations they traditionally support, one common argument against CCBs," Wright-Kim wrote. "To the contrary, there is suggestive evidence that CCB-granting institutions reinforce their commitment to certain historically underrepresented populations by increasing access to baccalaureate-level education for adults and low-income students, though more may need to be done to ensure adoptive institutions continue to support underrepresented racially and ethnically minoritized students."