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Report Describes Recent Trends in Community College Enrollment

July 22, 2011

Public two-year (community) colleges serve more than 7 million students. Because these institutions often charge lower tuition and fees than four-year public and private non-profit colleges and universities, they often provide access to higher education for many students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. A new policy brief from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center,Trends in Community College Education: Enrollment, Prices, Student Aid, and Debt Levels, looks at the growing number of students who attended community colleges over the past two decades. The report also provides trend data on community colleges’ tuition and fee charges; net tuition and fee revenue and other sources of funding; student financial aid and levels of student loan debts; and degree completion rates from community colleges.


In the past 20 years, total community college attendance increased about 53 percent—from 5.7 million in 1990 to 7.1 million in 2009. In this same time span, total full-time enrollment at these institutions rose from approximately 1.9 million to 2.9 million.

However, the share of all undergraduates enrolled in the public two-year sector actually fell slightly, from 42 percent to 40 percent. This decline occurred because the proportion of total undergraduates at private for-profit (proprietary) colleges and universities jumped from 2 percent to 9 percent.

Tuition and Fee Listed Prices

Community colleges generally have lower average tuition and fees prices than other institutional types. The listed tuition and fee price for full-time students enrolled at public two-year college in academic year 2010-11 was $2,713, compared with $7,605 at public four-year colleges and universities, $27,293 at four-year private non-profit institutions, and $13,935 at private for-profit institutions (an average of four-year and two-year private for-profit colleges and universities). Community colleges have also see a lower rate of growth in their tuition and fee “sticker” prices. Since 2000-01, the average annual increase in tuition and fee charges at public two-year institutions was 2.7 percent, versus 5.6 percent at public four-year colleges and universities and 3 percent at four-year private non-profit schools.

Net Tuition and Fees and Other Sources of Revenue

While tuition and fee prices at community colleges are comparatively low, the tuition and fee revenue collected by this sector has become enormously important. In FY09, the most recent year of available data presented in the College Board report, net tuition revenue (total tuition and fee charges paid by students minus the amounts the schools awarded for institutionally funded financial aid) constituted 16 percent of total revenues for community colleges. State government appropriations provided the largest source of revenue for these institutions (34 percent), while local government appropriations and grants provided 20 percent.

The College Board report does not provide trend data on changes in sources of revenue for community colleges. But data from the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Digest of Education Statistics show that net tuition and fee revenue collected by public two-year institutions rose 15 percent in current (non-inflation-adjusted) dollars between FY06 and FY09, while state appropriations increased 11 percent and local appropriations increased 18 percent.

Financial Aid and Student Loan Debt

Students at community colleges received an average of $1,700 in grant aid to pay their educational expenses in academic year 2007-08. Roughly two-thirds of total grant aid was comprised of Federal Pell Grants and other federal aid programs. Community college students received about 31 percent of the total Federal Pell Grant aid distributed in 2007-08.

In contrast, public two-year students accounted for only 8 percent of the total Stafford Subsidized Loan dollars and 6 percent of Stafford Unsubsidized Loans. As a result, the vast majority of students who complete educational programs at community colleges do so with no student loan debt. In 2007-08, 62 percent of associate’s degree recipients and 70 percent of certificate awardees from community colleges left school without any student loan debt.

Degree Completion Rates

Of the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, first-year undergraduates who began their educational programs at community colleges in the fall of 2005, only 21 percent of completed an associate’s degrees or certificate program within three years. About one-third of the fall 2005 entering students who received associate’s degree by 2008 had studied liberal arts and sciences, while 21 percent studied a health profession fields (such as nursing).

The report is available through the College Board web site.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis