In 1971, Florida emerged as a national leader in higher education by implementing the first statewide postsecondary articulation system in the country. Since then, Florida’s robust postsecondary transfer system continues to serve as a model to effectively support student access toward the completion of a 4-year degree. The state’s common course numbering system provides students with the ability to take courses at any Florida college and university with the assurance that those credits can transfer to any other public institution and apply toward earning a degree. Additionally, Florida’s 2+2 transfer program seamlessly guides students from a two-year degree to a four-year institution. Many Floridians have taken advantage of these targeted pathways. Now, a new report from the Community College Research Center finds students who start at four-year colleges experience greater benefits when taking community college courses.
Today’s average college student follows a nonlinear pathway, picking and choosing courses and institutions according to their needs. It is increasingly common for four-year students to choose to take certain courses — such as their prerequisites, electives, or summer classes — at community colleges. Nationwide, over one in three students who began at a four-year college in 2011-2012 attended another college within the first six years of college entry. Often, four-year students may take classes at two-year colleges because they are cheaper, have increased course options and availability, are smaller and provide more personal attention, and can offer a supportive environment.
Using the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, the report looked at a nationally representative dataset of students who started at a four-year institution in the mid-2000s. Calling the practice “supplemental enrollment,” the report found multiple benefits for students who took between one and ten community college credits during their time at their institution. Supplementally enrolled students saw higher bachelor’s degree attainment and better employment outcomes than students who never earned credits from a two-year college.
Supplemental enrollment benefits for historically underrepresented students
In comparison to their peers who did not supplement their enrollment, low-income students who took community college courses earned nearly 10 more college credits in total, and had higher rates of bachelor’s degree, STEM bachelor’s degree, and graduate degree completion. The study further found that after entering the labor market, supplementally enrolled low-income students earned $2.31 more per hour. Additionally, Black and Latinx students who supplementally enrolled earned more STEM credits than their peers, held nearly $6,000 less in student loan debt, and had a higher rate of full-time employment eight years after college entry.
The study found supplemental enrollment can potentially improve STEM degree attainment outcomes, particularly for students who are underrepresented in STEM fields. This may be because early STEM course performance is highly predictive of a student’s major persistence and completion. If students do well in their early STEM courses at community colleges, perhaps because courses may be more supportive for students generally underrepresented in STEM, they are more likely to succeed in STEM courses further in their studies.
Supplemental enrollment presents a cost-effective option through cheaper tuition and increased course options
Supplemental enrollment is cost-effective. It did not increase student loan debt for any group, and reduced student loan debt for Black and Latinx students. Although the financial benefits of supplemental education are the easiest to quantify, the report posits that more flexible course options and times, classes with instructors focused on teaching, and friendly and diverse environments in early coursework may lead to further success in four-year programs. Due in part to these benefits, women and students from low-income backgrounds seeking a STEM degree may particularly benefit from taking a few courses at a community college. As the report suggests, community colleges and four-year institutions should explore why women and low-income students succeed in STEM courses at community colleges and scale promising practices across colleges and universities.
Floridians with credentials beyond high school are more resilient during tough economic times. American adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, as a group, enjoyed the strongest recovery from joblessness after the Great Recession. Further, Floridians with bachelor’s degrees earn more than twice as much annually compared to those with just a high school education. The findings that four-year Black, Latinx, and lower-income students may particularly benefit from community college enrollment offers a promising avenue for Floridians to graduate faster and with less debt.