Building Pathways to Success for Community College Students

May 15, 2019 · 5 min read

Community college students need more guidance about fields of study and their ultimate labor market rewards.

Photo by MD Duran

by Harry J. Holzer and Zeyu Xu | May 15, 2019

Community colleges in the U.S. hold great promise for improving the employment and earnings outcomes of disadvantaged youth and adults. Many associate’s degrees and even certificates have strong labor market value, and are attainable for many students who would have great difficulty earnings bachelor’s degrees.

But outcomes for community college students, and especially minority or disadvantaged students, are generally disappointing. Completion rates, particularly in associate’s programs, are very low; when students earn credentials — such as terminal associate’s degrees in liberal arts — they have little market value; and students who begin a program without earning a credential with value accumulate debt and are at risk of financial default.

Previous research shows that weak student outcomes at community college partly reflect the weak academic preparation of many students, the financial pressure they often face to work full-time (especially if they are single parents) while they are there, and a lack of information and “social capital” about where to enroll and how to succeed there.

But the colleges themselves also have problems — too few resources, too few incentives for them to raise completion or respond to labor markets, and too little structure or guidance for students there. At the same time, we have had little rigorous evidence to date on why some students with weak academic backgrounds succeed in such institutions while others fail, and what are the critical determinants of success at community colleges for such students.

Our new study provides new evidence on this topic. We use administrative data on all students in Kentucky who began community college in the year 2010–11, and we follow them for six years. We examine the “pathways” students choose — which are fields of study and desired credentials (like health care, applied STEM, business, other occupational, and liberal arts associate’s programs, as well as certificates/diplomas in general), as well as other student choices and outcomes in these programs — like grade point average, credits attempted and attained (cumulatively and in the first year), how often they switch pathways, and how much time they spend within each one. We control for entering student “readiness” and a range of other student characteristics.


The pathways students choose when they begin community college and when they switch afterwards have important effects on their likelihood of completing credentials. All else equal, students in applied STEM, health care and the certificate/diploma pathways are more likely to attain credentials than those who choose other pathways. In addition, associate’s degrees in applied STEM and health care also have the highest labor market value for young workers in Kentucky, whose earnings are roughly twice that of high school graduates with degrees in those fields (while liberal arts associate’s degrees have less value). Below the associate’s level, diploma holders earn nearly the average of those with associate degrees, while those with certificates earn 47 and 23 percent more than high school graduates among young men and women respectively.

But, in some circumstances, student choices of pathways do not appear to be informed by these pathway outcomes. For instance, despite the high probability of completing credentials when students begin in health care, only 9 percent of males choose this pathway initially, while 32 percent of females do so. This low tendency to choose the health care field almost certainly reduces completion and subsequent earnings for male community college students.

And, despite their relatively greater success rate in completing certificates and diplomas rather than associate’s programs, students deemed “not college-ready” by the state of Kentucky when they enter (based mostly on ACT test scores) choose the certificate pathway only a bit more frequently than do students considered ready (17 v. 9 percent respectively).

Student switch pathways quite frequently — at a rate of 40–60 percent, depending on the exact one in which they start. This can have positive impacts, if they choose pathways that they enjoy more and in which they will more likely succeed. At the same time, there is a cost to switching, as the amount of time students accumulate in their pathway has important effects on completion as well. These costs are likely greater the longer time students spend in their original pathway.

Students attempting to take more credits and passing them more frequently are, not surprisingly, more likely to complete credentials. But first year credential attempts and attainment are particularly important determinants of success, reflecting the importance of early “momentum” as they work toward completion.

Policy Implications

The clearest message of this work is that community college students need more guidance about fields of study and their ultimate labor market rewards. Students there receive fairly little academic or career counseling right now, and both seem critically important to help students make good choices and stay on track.

Indeed, the “guided pathways” concept developed by Thomas Bailey and his coauthors deserve to be implemented in some places and evaluated. In that model, community college students would receive strong guidance every semester while they are gradually pushed to focus more on specific fields. And, if more students choose occupational programs like health care or other certificates after receiving such guidance, colleges must make sure they have the teaching capacity in such “high-demand” fields to accommodate them.

Other implications include a need to reform developmental (or remedial) classes, in ways that enable students to gain more early momentum in credit attainment; providing more stipends or opportunities for work-based learning for students, so they can gain income while they study; and other “nudges” by peers and coaches to keep them on track.

Since community colleges are currently underfunded — receiving considerably less state subsidy per student full-time equivalent than those at four-year colleges — states and the federal government (through a reauthorized Higher Education Act) should target more funding to community colleges to provide the needed guidance, along with other critical supports and services, to disadvantaged students.

Harry J. Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a research affiliate at ESSPRI, and Zeyu Xu is a Senior Fellow at American Institutes for Research. Their new work, Community College Pathways for Disadvantaged Students, published this month to the ESSPRI Working Paper Series.

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