top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Dreams are lost in the community college 'maze'

Community college was "a weird maze," recalls Santos Enrique Camara, who'd hoped to study audio engineering at Washington's Shoreline Community College.

Credit: Susan Yin/Unsplash

“You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”

Like many community college students, Camara gave up on his college dreams, reports Hechinger's Jon Marcus. An A student in high school, he now works as a cook and plays in bands.

Community college enrollment has fallen 37 percent since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, reports Marcus. Numbers would be even lower without high school students taking dual-enrollment courses, who "now make up nearly a fifth of community college enrollment."

With scant advising, many community college students spend time and money on courses that won’t transfer or that they don’t need. Though most intend to move on to get bachelor’s degrees, only a small fraction succeed; fewer than half earn any kind of a credential. Even if they do, a new survey finds that many employers don’t believe they’re ready for the workforce.

“The reckoning is here,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, at Teachers College, Columbia University. Colleges haven't helped students "see a path” to a job with "family-sustaining wages," he said. “When we talk about transfer students, I just want to cry. And the sad thing is, they blame themselves.”

Nearly half of students drop out, within a year of starting community college, writes Marcus. While four out of five "say they plan to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six of them actually manages to do it. That’s down by nearly 15 percent since 2020."

Community colleges disproportionately draw students who are black, Hispanic and the first in their families to go to college, he writes. If they can find advisers, first-generation students don't always know what to ask, said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard business professor. “They do have ambition, but they’re worried about discussing it with anybody for fear they’re going to be told it’s unrealistic or a dumb idea,” he said. “And that just makes you want to cry.”

In California, community college students who manage to transfer to four-year universities take 26 more credits than they need on average, the Campaign for College Opportunity found. Students get little help navigating a “difficult and complex" process.

California is trying to help community college students transfer to state universities without wasting time on unneeded classes, reports Michael Burke on EdSource. The associate degree for transfer has streamlined transfer to the second-tier California State University system, but the top-tier University of California wants to create its own transfer pathways. That's likely to complicate the process, say legislators.

185 views3 comments


Apr 08, 2023

What percentage of classes that don't transfer are remedial? How many are high school level?

Plenty of high school students here are also talked into paying for DE that doesn't transfer as students in many majors can't transfer College Algebra, non-Calculus based science, Foreign Language 2, etc. into their major. DE in my state is not from a sole provider; at least three different providers are normal in my district. That means at least three transcripts have to be arranged for and paid for a transfer, a grad program....


Apr 08, 2023

I'm not surprised that many people attending college don't understand the concept of reading requirements for a degree and knowing exactly what classes will and will NOT transfer.

Common sense would tell you that core classes will transfer along with (in most cases) subject specific matter related to a 4 year degree



Apr 08, 2023

I find it really odd that an article starts with a Shoreline student to segue into "With scant advising, many community college students spend time and money on courses that won’t transfer or that they don’t need."

First, this particular student wanted to pursue Music Technology, which is not a transfer program and has an explicit guide that says what to take:

Second, Shoreline, like all Washington community colleges, long ago introduced the Common Course Numbering system where they renumbered the courses so everyone would know that the ones with ampersands (e.g., ENGL& 101) follow the same syallabi as UW classes and will transfer directly across public colleges in Washington. If you want to transfer, just take the course…

bottom of page