How much does it cost to produce a community college graduate?

Austin Community College is one of 50 community colleges in Texas that researchers analyzed to determine how much ought to be spent educating students. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Community colleges say they can’t help the neediest students get through college successfully without more funding. But these institutions, which educate 10 million students a year or 44 percent of all undergraduates, have a terrible track record; fewer than half their students end up earning degrees. Obviously, all those college dropouts aren’t improving local work forces. And state lawmakers aren’t keen to write community colleges blank checks without accountability. 

The problem is that no one really knows how much it costs to educate a community college student, or exactly how much more should be spent on the neediest ones, from young adults who are the first in their families to go to college, known as first generation students, to older adults who are juggling a job and children of their own along with school, often called “nontraditional” students.

A first attempt at finding an answer was the publication of a paper in October 2022 that examined the costs of Texas community colleges. The analysis was conducted for the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, by a team of researchers from the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization, and education finance specialists from Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee. (The American Institutes for Research is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.*) 

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