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Community College Graduation Rates: The Real Story

Community colleges are dramatically different from universities in the demographics of their student bodies and how they pursue their degrees. The positive impact of Tennessee’s Community Colleges is undeniable when the unique nature of the student population is considered.


Most students attend part time. On average, 55 percent of community college students attend part-time. (For comparison, only 25 percent of public university students enroll part time.) Many community college students are older and have work and family obligations, but are no less dedicated to their studies. They may attend part-time or skip semesters, extending the timeframe for their graduation. Reflecting that trend, Tennessee’s Community Colleges six-year graduation rate is 41 percent for all students, and 62.4 percent for those attending full-time.


Certificate training programs have impressive graduation rates. Each year, more than 5,500 students graduate from workforce training programs, which award certificates rather than degrees. Traditional graduation measurements completely ignore community college students seeking those types of certificates. Tennessee’s community college certificate programs tout a remarkable 94 percent completion rate.


Once students graduate, they get to work. More than 90 percent of Allied Health graduates (nursing, EMT/paramedic, radiologic technology, etc.) pass their professional licensing exams on their first attempt. And within six months, 93 percent of AAS graduates are employed in their field. Many AAS programs boast of an impressive 100 percent placement rate.


Unfortunately, impressive results like these are not factored into graduation rates reported to IPEDS, which tracks only first-time, full-time freshmen who start and finish within three years. It doesn’t consider the many community college students who transfer to universities, who leave temporarily and return, who attend part time or who pursue vocational certificates. When these factors are included, the success of community colleges becomes much clearer.


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