It is challenging to paint a portrait of the "average" community college student without snubbing a few individuals or even small student groups who do not portray some of the most common characteristics supposed of community college students. Cohen and Brawer (2008) may have depicted it best in the subtitle of their chapter dedicated to community college students entitled, "Diverse Backgrounds, Purposes, and Outcomes". Presented below are a few things that we found most reflective of today's community college students.
‍‍‍Community colleges have grown at an incredibly fast rate since the 1960’s, sometimes as much as 15 percent a year. Enrollment increased from approximately five hundred thousand in 1960 to just over six million in 2005 (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). As of the 2012-2013 school year, 45% of all undergraduate students were enrolled in public two-year colleges, or approximately 7.7 million students. Approximately 3.1 million students were enrolled full-time, and approximately 4.6 million students were enrolled part-time.(AACC Fast Facts). Since 1985, more than half of all community college students have been women. In addition, the majority of Black and Hispanic undergraduate students in this country study at these colleges. (AACC Students at Community Colleges). Community colleges are diverse institutions that serve various of needs for different students. With their open-access model and low tuition rates, community colleges are a gateway to opportunity. Community colleges can provide the preparation, training, and services that are needed for success no matter students' goal are to transfer to a four-year colleges or to immediately join the workforce.

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Check out this video clip entitled, "A Vision of Community College Students Today"produced by Sussex County Community College in New Jersey.


AGE (2007-2008)

Average Age: 28
Median Age: 23
21 or younger: 39%
22 - 39: 45%
40 or older: 15%

GENDER (Fall 2008)

Women: 58%
Men: 42%

ETHNICITY (Fall 2008)

Minorities: 45%
Black: 13%
Hispanic: 16%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6%
Native American: 1%


First generation to attend college: 42%
Single parents: 13%
Non-U.S. citizens: 6%
Veterans: 3%
Students with disabilities: 12%
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As mentioned before, the increase in community college enrollments may be attributed to several conditions in addition to general population expansion: older students’ participation; financial aid; part-time attendance; the reclassification of institution; the redefinition of students and courses; and high attendance by women, minorities and less academically prepared students. Community colleges also recruited students aggressively; to an institution that tries to offer something for everyone in the community, everyone is potentially a student.

To make up for the shortfall in potential younger students in the 1980s, the colleges expanded programs that would be attractive to older students. Numbers of working adults seeking skills that would enable them to change or upgrade their jobs or activities to satisfy their personal interests enrolled because they could attend part time, and many more register after losing their jobs in the recession. (Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.47).

The availability of financial aid brought additional students as state and federal payments, loans, and work-study grants rose markedly. Veterans, students from economically disadvantaged and minority groups used to be the largest group of beneficiaries. Since the mid-1970s, more of the funds have been unrestricted and overall, 65 percent of full-time students and 45 percent of the part-timers received some form of financial aid during the 2007-2008 academic year. Every full-time aid-receiving student received the aid with an average of $5,650 in total. (Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.49-50).

Part-time enrollment increased as the age of the students went up. In early 1970s, half of the students were full-timers; by the mid-1980s, only one-third were. Today full-timers constitute just over 40 percent of the student body, without counting noncredit students enrolled in community or continuing education, dual enrollment courses, and shor-cycle occupational studies. In nearly all states with community college enrollments greater than fifty thousand, part-time students far outnumbered full-timers, sometimes by as much as three to one. (Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.49-50). The following factors led to the increase in the enrollment: "the opening of non-campus colleges that enroll few-full-timers; an increase in the number of students combining work and study; and an increase in the number of reverse transfers, people who may already have baccalaureate and higher degrees" (p.50.) Community college students often struggle to fit required courses, tutoring, and other educational activities into schedules constrained by part-time of full-time jobs, family commitments, child-rearing responsibilities, long commutes and other obligations”(Cohen, Brawer & Kisker,2013, p.50-53). The colleges have initiated numerous programs to assist students in overcoming these challenges.

Higher woman participation is also a reason of the increase enrollment. “Historically, among less well-prepared students, fewer women than men attended college. When funds were limited, more male than female high-ability students from low-income families entered college” (Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.57).Since 1978, more women than men have earned associate degrees. In the field of studies, men dominated in technology and engineering area; women in health professions, business, liberal arts and education. National Science Foundation (NFS) and several other federal and philanthropic agencies have spent a significant amount of money to increase female participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields (p.58).

The rise of minority groups in community colleges is another situation. "In 1997, community colleges, with 38 percent of the total enrollment in American higher Education, were enrolling 46 percent of minority students, up from 20 percent in 1976" (p.59). The pattern differed from state to state; the following states enrolled a large amount of minority students : Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisianan, New Jersey, Maryland, Nevada, Florida, Arizona, and the District of Columbia, with the number above national average.
The community colleges also provide education to foreign students. 14 percent of the more than 700,000 international students in U.S higher education go to community colleges. They offer English as a Second Language courses at lower cost than other senior institution to the international students who are supposed to study English before attempting particular college programs. More than three quarters of these international students are between the age of twenty to thirty-four and most of them are enrolled full time for the requirement of their visas. The majority of these international students are from Asian countries, with China at the top of the list. (Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.50-51). What is more, “community colleges also enroll most of the post-secondary students residing in the country illegally, primarily because the colleges cost far less than other institutional type” (p.51).

Financial aid did play important role in attracting more students to community colleges. Cross pointed out, "The majority of students entering open-door community colleges come from the lower half of the high school classes, academically and socioeconomically" (as cited in Cohen, Brawer & Kisker, 2013, p.54). The growth of merit scholarship and honors programs have made special benefits available to high-ability students.

Two other factors influence the total enrollments at community colleges. The first one is the different ways of classifying institutions. Private colleges become public and two-year colleges become four-year and vice versa. trade and vocational schools and adult education center were added into the category, especially as they begin awarding degrees. All these changes helped to increase the enrollments at community colleges. Another significant factor is a redefinition of the term student. “As an example, when the category defined adult was removed from the California system, students of all ages could be counted as equivalents for funding purposes… It swell the enrollment figures and blur the definition of student, making it possible for community college leaders to point with pride to larger enrollments and to gain augmented funding when enrollments are used as the basis for accounting. They also heighten imprecision in counting students and make it difficult to compare enrollments from one year to another” (p.52-53).

EMPLOYMENT STATUSEmployment Status of Public Community College Students by Attendance Status and Age (2003-2004):

Employment Status
Did not work
Worked part time
Worked full time
Attended full time, full year
19 or younger
40 or older
Attended part time, full year
19 or younger
40 or older
Attended part time, part year
19 or younger
40 or older
Total, all students

19 or younger
40 or older
Source: National profile of community colleges: Trends and statistics, p.50.


Independent undergraduate’s income by race/ethnicity (2003-04):

% of students who are independent
Native American
Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
White, non-Hispanic
More than one race
Source: National profile of community colleges: Trends and statistics, p.58.


Cohen and Brawer (2008) explain that, “[d]etermining the reasons that students attend college is not an exact exercise. They come for a variety of purposes, and the same person may have a half-dozen reasons for attending” (p.60). Commuity colleges students may attend classes for dual-enrollment or transfer credit, to earn an associate's degree, to gain vocational or technical skills, or even to learn about something of personal interest.

When asked their reason for attending community college, 52 percent of students involved in the National Postsecondary Student chose “transfer”, 42 percent selected “complete associate’s degree”, 17 percent reported “complete certificate”, 42 percent picked “job skills”, and 46 percent indicated “personal interest” (Horn, Nevill, & Griffith, 2006). Other studies reported comparable results. In 1986 the Center for the Study of Community Colleges (CSCC) asked students their principal reason for enrolling in community college. The CSCC found 36 percent of students aspiring to transfer, 34 percent hoping to learn job entry skills, 16 percent seeking job upgrade skills, and 15 percent learning for personal interest (Cohen & Brawer, 2008).

Cohen and Brawer (2008) suggest that although people analyze why and what kinds of students attend community colleges, these students continue to enroll for their own purposes. For example, recent high school graduates may matriculate simply because they are used to attending school every fall. Those seeking a better job may enroll because local employers have established career programs with the community college. Others who are employed and seeking new skills may attend because the community college offers a short-term program that will teach them how to use new tools in their industry. Many students join entry-level training programs to prepare them for a trade. Some students seek out classes they may find interesting, such as photography or floral design, simply to fulfill a personal interest. And many students who aspire to transfer to other institutions attend the community college because it provides a convenient and more affordable option for the first two-years of college (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). Generally speaking, community college students are realistic in the sense that they use the institutions for their own purposes.


All tables from "the American Association of Community Colleges"



The underserved student population, many of whom attend community college, most often includes those who are low-income students, first-generation college stduetnts, and/or students of color (Green, 2006). The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) identifies the underserved student population, also referred to as the under-represented poGE-Lester-headshot.jpgpulation URP), as students who are low-income Pell recipients, who reside in a specific domicile, are first generation, or are of minority ethnicity or race.
Underserved students face many challenges with college persistence and student success. According to Green (2006), these challenges are attributed to under-preparedness for college-level coursework, completion of lower-level reading and math courses, and lower achievement test scores and entrance examination scores. These characteristics often thwart the transition process from high school to college and frequently place students in developmental education courses.
Unfortunately, educators and administrators often rely on a deficit model where “minority, low-income, and first generation college students are characterized as lacking the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in higher education” (Green, 2006). In other words, college faculty and administrators focus on students' deficits or inabilities rather than their abilities. Therefore, underserved students may also face the great challenge of a self-fulfilling prophecy that they will be unsuccessfull in their academic endeavors.
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Cohen and Brawer (2008) note that there are a variety of reasons that students drop out, but most of these reasons are typically beyond the college’s control. Students report a change in work schedule, heath problems, family conflict, difficulty finding childcare, financial burden, change in residence, and attendance at another institution as reasons for dropping out (Cohen and Brawer, 2008). Although many of these students did drop out, most of them reported that they would be back again at some point in time.
Most students who do drop out make the decision to do so early into the term and do not consult their instructor before withdrawing (Cohen and Brawer, 2008). Students who drop out are less likely to be involved with the college, participate in a study group, or socialize with faculty or advisors. Other than student involvement, Cohen and Brawer (2008) also suggest tPH-THACKER-headshot.jpghat students who attend community college have greater risk factors for attrition because “they are more likely than students from other institutional types to be first-generation students, have delayed entry into higher education, attend part-time, work full-time, be financially independent with dependents, and be single parents” (p. 69).

Although the majority of students’ reasons for leaving community college are out of the administrator and faculty’s hands, Cohen and Brawer (2008) present some suggestions for how institutions can help decrease the drop out rate. Programs that aim to integrate students with the college such as programs of early start and summer involvements have been helpful to retention. Informing students about student services resources, such as counseling, advising, women’s centers, and career services is also important, as these offices can greatly impact student success and support. Providing childcare on campus is also a huge benefit for the many adult students with children. Cohen and Brawer (2008) suggest offering more on-campus jobs to students that will allow them to be more closely tied to the college and allow them to work fewer hours away from the campus. Some community colleges have even begun early-alert systems, programs where a staff member seeks out a student who has missed more than two classes to find out if the student is experiencing any problems with which the college can help (Cohen and Brawer, 2008).
.Click here to learn more about middle college graduate, Amber Thacker.


Many community college students, up to 80% in some states (Developmental Education Task Force, 2009), are required to enroll in remedial or developmental education classes; courses that teach basic skills such as literacy, writing, arithmetic, as well as other life skills such as time management and study skills. According to Cohen and Brawer (2008), forty-four percent of first-time community college students enroll in between one and three developmental courses, fourteen percent enroll in more than three developmental classes, and forty-two percent take none. What may be even more startling to learn is that developmental education students are less than half as likely to be successful in completing an award as non-developmental education students (Developmental Education Task Force, 2009).
Do developmental education help? A number of recent studies on remediation have found mixed or negative results for students who enroll in remedial courses. Bettinger and Long found positive effects of math remediation for younger students. Studies by Calcagno and Long and Martorell and McFarlin, however, used a broader sample of students and found no impact on most outcomes (including degree completion), with small mixed positive and negative effects on other outcomes (as cited in Community Colleges Research Center, 2014). Althought developmental education courses serve the purpose to preprare students for college-level work, completion of these courses rarely results in the achievement of credit hours towards a degree or award. Therefore, developmental education students must spend more time completing coursework that is not credited towards the requirements to earn a degree or award.

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According to the American Association of Community Colleges, over 62 percent of students attend community college on a part-time basis, meaning they enroll in less than 3shawanda-headshot.jpg classes per semester (Handel, 2009). This is a significant difference compared to students at four-year institutions who typically enroll on a full-time basis. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 21 percent of students at public institutions and 18 percent at private institutions enroll as part-time students (Handel, 2009). The number of students who attend community college with a part-time status has increased dramatically from 2.7 million in 1980 to 3.8 million in 2002. This rise in part-time enrollment is due to the opening of non-campus colleges; an increase the number of students working while attending school; and a rise in the number of reverse transfer students (Cohen and Brawer, 2008).
Statistics show that students who attend college part-time are less likely to earn a degree (Handel, 2009). This could be due to the fact that while students attend class on a part-time basis, the time it takes to complete their degree requirements becomes extended and family and work commitments can easily interrupt their education. According to the Department of Education, part-time students lack the ability to complete at least 20 credit hours in the first year of college, which is a strong predictor of degree completion (Handel, 2009).

Click here to learn more about culinary arts student, ShaWanda Weatherspoon.

Check out this video clip of 2005 Tidewater Community College graduate,Melissa Baumann's commencement speech:


The majority of community college students have more than one identity since they work, raise families, study, take care of parents, and usually have other life roles (Davies, 1999). Therefore, most students have mixed expectations for their student-life and other-life balance when deciding to attend community colleges (Davies, 1999).

Some students anticipate that their primary, or sometimes, the only identity would be a student when attending community college (Davies, 1999). Other students, particularly older students expect to continue to balance their student life with other life responsibilities. For these students, most of them feel support from faculty and staff (Davies, 1999). One student reflected that the faculty at the community college where he attended even asked him how many hours he planned to work per week; in addition, faculty there had a clear idea that older students had other things to do that were important to them (Davies, 1999). However, some students are not able to juggle classes and homework with their other responsibilities, and they imply both surprise and frustration wondering how they could survive as both a student and a resident (Davies, 1999). In this case, if colleges do not take older students’ multiple roles into account, these students’ life would be rather stressful (Wells, 2010). One student expressed that she was supposed to work, attend classes, do homework, and practice on her instrument. Since she had to work approximately 40 hours per week, she felt it difficult to handle the school work and job simultaneously. Disappointingly, her grades dropped a lot (Davies, 1999).

Student Life at Community Colleges of Colorado



In 2012-13, average tuition and fee charges for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally were $3,260, while the cost is $8,890 at public four-year colleges (2014 Fact Sheet, 2014). Community Colleges Research Center at Columbia University did researches and had the following discovery:

The average net price, however (taking into account grants and education tax credits), was negative $1,220. This means that full-time community college students on average actually get money back for enrolling (College Board Trends in College Pricing 2012). While sticker prices at community colleges have increased over the past decade (from $2,130 in 2002-03), net prices at community colleges have actually fallen over this period due to increases in Pell Grants and education tax credits (College Board Trends in College Pricing 2012). According to the 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), after accounting for grants (but not tax credits), nearly 3 in 10 (28%) of all community college students (full- and part- time) pay nothing or receive money back for attending. Three out of four pay less than $1,000, and only 6% will pay more than $2,500 after accounting for grants (NPSAS 2007-08)

NOTE: NPSAS 2012 does not yet have onine the variables needed to examine net price. However, NPSAS 2012 shows that only 13% of CC students pay more than $3,000 in tuition/fees. Among the 38% of students who receive a Pell Grant, only 17% pay more than $3,000. Since $3,000 is the average size of a Pell Grant for those who get one, we can estimate that 32% pay nothing or receive money back for attending (83% of 38%) (as cited in Community Colleges Research Center).


A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey report stated that Americans continue to think that higher education is essential for a nation’s economic success and individual’s civic participation (as cited in Phillippe & Sullivan, 2005). In reality, almost 80% of middle-class respondents in the Chronicle of Higher Education survey expressed their concerns that it would be hard for them to fund college studies for their children and themselves. Phillippe and Sullivan (2005) believed that these respondents’ concerns are reasonable. Between 1991-1992 and 2001-2002, tuition charged by community colleges increased from an average of $1,189 to $1,772, an increase of nearly 50%. Faced with a much faster increase in tuition, many students try to offset high college costs through applying for federal and state grants as well as loans. In 2002-2003, nearly one-third of Pell grants (roughly $4.4 billion) were awarded to community college attendees, with an annual grant aid maximum of $4,050 per student. Even though the average award of $2,000 Pell grant can generally cover the entire tuition cost, community college students continue to feel heavy financial burdens since they also have to cover other education-related costs, like those for child care, transportation, books, etc (Phillippe & Sullivan, 2005).

Although community colleges are often considered charging low tuition, the lower price only reflects part of the real story (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Compared to their peers studying at four-year institutions, community college students often struggle to cover education-related costs and living expenses even though financial aid provides some assistance. Based on the information drawn from the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the national total average cost of attending community college is $10,392 for full-time students, as opposed to $17,473 for students who attend public four-year colleges full time (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Although community colleges cost less than four-year institutions, the total costs are still significant given that 40% of community college students have too low incomes to pay for a higher education. In comparison, only 22% of public four-year college students are from low-income families.


Compared to students at other types of schools, it is more likely for community college students with documented financial need to receive federal Pell grants since Pell grants are widely available to students from low-income families (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Compared to students attending four-year institutions, it is less likely for community college students to be awarded state grants because these grants are partially based on students’ academic performance in high school (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Similarly, it is less likely for community college students to receive grants from their colleges than their peers attending other types of colleges. More specifically, only 19% of community college students who have documented financial need receive institutional grants, as opposed to 35% at four-year public institutions and 71% at private four-year colleges (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Also, much fewer community college students take out federal Stafford loans compared to their peers attending four-year colleges. The underlying reasons are twofold. On the one hand, students from lower-income families are often unwilling to borrow for college, especially community college. On the other hand, college themselves may discourage or even prevent borrowing by not releasing enough information about loans or not participating in the federal loan programs (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). One more barrier is that there are not many work-study opportunities in community colleges due to inequalities in the way federal funds for work-study are allotted to colleges. Empirically, only 8% of community college students who have documented financial need receive federal work-study awards, compared to 13% of students attending public four-year institutions and 33% of students studying at private four-year colleges (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009). Given all these facts aforementioned, community college students are most likely to have unmet needs even after taking all available sources of financial aid into considerations. For these students, the gap between the total cost of attending college and what they are able to afford is similar to students at public four-year institutions (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009).

One more severe problem is that relatively few community college students are willing to borrow loans of any type, but those who do want to borrow loans unnecessarily resort to private loans more frequently than students studying at other types of colleges. This evidence indicates that community college students do not receive the right information which can help them make wise choices regarding how to pay for their higher education (The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009).

Is There Financial Aid for Community College Students (

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After an unsuccessful attempt at college in the early 1980’s at a traditional college, I decided after a nearly twenty-five year break that it was high time to return to school and finish my degree.In the interim I had married, had children, and attended a couple of community colleges in different states, but never could settle on what I wanted to do. Because my children were young and my husband traveled extensively for his job, attending school full-time was not an option.

Later, I owned my own business which I ran successfully for over a decade. My children got bigger and when they were 10 and 15 years old, my husband died. His sudden death caused me to take stock of my life, and a part of that process involved the realization that finishing school was no longer an option, but a necessity.

For economic reasons and the lower tuition rate offered by community colleges, I decided to return to school via my local community college. Since I began the process while still employed full-time, access to both online and face-to-face class options at the school was very appealing.I can without hesitation also say that my success at college this time is directly related to my participation in the TRiO program.The resources, support and encouragement provided to me by the program are a significant factor in my successful performance as a returning older student.

I believe that successful achievement in any project requires a plan; access to resources and people who help make it happen.I got all of that by participating in the TRiO program.The completion of my four year degree has become my pet project, and I am on a full-time path to that achievement.I know that community college works.I also know that with TRiO’s support and guidance in planning for transfer, I will successfully complete two years of my four year project when I graduate in May of this year with my Associates of Science degree in Business Administration.I will continue on to a four year college in the fall.If you want to achieve it, community college is an economical first step in the process, and the additional resource of TRiO makes for a winning combination!
- C. Scott

I’m currently taking three community college courses during my senior year to supplement my high school education. It has been a great way to prepare me for college level work and has provided me with transferrable credits. It has also increased my odds for being accepted to the universities I've applied to for admission in the fall. Also, the small class sizes provide a good way to learn from other students and the professors. Because of this, I’m getting good grades and I feel more confident about going to college.
- Kate N.

I began my scholastic career at community college in the Fall of 2007. I had a job in banking but was not satisfied with my chosen field. I went back to school and chose community college because of the cheaper rates and smaller class size. I felt intimidated at first because I am a non-traditional student. However, the TRiO program assisted me with the planning of my classes and made sure I was in the right curriculum to graduate in a timely manner. Also, they assisted with my career choice and taught leadership skills that enhanced my ability to become an effective leader. I am now the Student Government Association's Vice President and Mentor for the TRiO program. I went from an uncertain student to an active leader on campus that has achieved a 4.0 and will be graduating in May of 2010.
- Kendra R.

I actually started classes at community college way back in 1986, when I was working for a government contracting company and they wanted me to learn tech writing/editing. When I got pregnant in 1988 I had to drop out. When I was hired on at the community college in August 2005, my supervisor said I had no more excuses, I was on campus and I would finish my degree! She's on to bigger things, but I credit her with forcing the issue on me. Now I work full-time and take classes part-time, usually two in the Fall and Spring and one during the Summer terms. I am also active in student organizations, such as the Honors Program and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society of which I am the President this academic year.
- Geri



The American Student Association for Community Colleges

Student page at “The American Association of Community Colleges”

CCRC Community Colleges Research Center at Columbia University