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Community College Dropouts Come at High Cost, New Report Says

There is a high cost to federal, state, and local governments when full-time community college students don't return for a second year. A new report by the American Institutes of Research estimates the cost of freshman dropouts over five years is $4 billion.

The Hidden Cost of Community Colleges by Mark Schneider, vice president of AIR and Lu (Michelle) Yin, researcher at AIR, breaks down the financial price of those who drop out by state and institution in an interactive map here.

Looking at academic years 2004-05 through 2008-09, AIR arrived at the cost figure by adding up $3 billion in state and local governments appropriations to community colleges, $240 million in state student grants, and $660 million in federal student grants. Taking into account transfers, the report found that one-fifth of full-time students who began their studies did not return for a second year.

The American Association of Community Colleges takes issue with some of the conclusions drawn in the AIR report.

The report assumes that everybody who is not re-enrolled at the same institution in the fall after the first year will never re-enroll in a community college or other higher education institution, and 62 percent actually do come back or transfer to another school, says David Baime, senior vice president, government relations & research. Also, some students also get the skills they need in just a few courses and then return to work, he added.

"There is an assumption that all that money that goes to those who don't re-enroll is wasted," said Baime. "Clearly, many are getting the education they want so in no way has the money been wasted."

Schneider said the point is well taken that some students do come back, but he questions the evidence that they succeed. "Time is the enemy," he said, adding that the likelihood of completion decreases over the years.

As for lost taxpayer money, AACC also notes that one-third of community college students do not receive any government financial aid.

As community colleges come under criticism for low-completion rates, the AACC has suggested new measurements for success. In a recent report, the AACC encouraged a broader look at the credentials earned on campus and tracking of part-time students. The AACC report said that between 1990 and 2010, the number of degrees and certificates awarded by community colleges increased by 127 percent, while enrollment increased by 65 percent.

Community college leaders have come together to endorse graduation goals, promote greater voluntary accountability, and leverage data to improve students' success, says Baime. "There is unprecedented, deep, massive investments of our institutions to helping more students complete their degrees," he says.

J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, said the new imperative for community college leaders is access for success. "It is reasonable to examine issues of efficiency and return on investment. Many presidents and boards realize that we will leverage more resources by focusing on results," he says. "We must redouble our efforts and re-examine our strategies to ensure that more students not only persist, but gain something meaningful and measurable."

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