Research Memo

High School Students: Aspiring to Community College

Aspiring to Community College - Student Research Foundation

During the 2015-2016 school year, 22% of students responding to our combined research surveys indicated interest in furthering their education at a community college.[1]

Community College Customer Base

Students could choose up to two post-secondary education options.  Of those who considered attending community college,

  • 22% solely considered community college
  • 66% also considered a traditional 4-year public or private college
  • 8% also considered a technical school/college
  • 3% also considered an online college as well.[2]

Gender and market segments.

Females more often than males aspire to attend community college (24% vs. 19%).   Among those aspiring to community college, 

  • females are more likely than males to also consider a four-year college (70% vs. 62%).
  • males are more likely than females to consider only community college (23% vs. 21%).
  • males more often than females consider tech colleges/schools (13% vs. 5%).

Race/Ethnicity and market segments.

Hispanics (26%) most often and Blacks (18%) least often aspire to attend community college.[3]

Regardless of race, majorities of potential community college students also aspire to attend a 4-year college. The proportion considering a 4-year college (as well as a community college) ranges from a low of 64% (Native Americans) to a high of 75% (Asians).

The gender differences observed in the aggregate are replicated across racial/ethnic subgroups:

  • Females more often than males aspire to both community college and a 4-year college.
  • Females more often than males aspire to both community college and an online college.
  • Males more often than females aspire to both community college and a career/tech school.
  • Males more often than females aspire solely to community college. [4]

High School Preparation

The community college customer base is complex. Respondents seem to fall into two clusters: Students who aspire to perhaps begin their post-secondary academic career in community colleges and move to 4-year colleges later and those who are opting for less-traditional post-secondary education paths.

At first glance, community college aspirants appear less prepared than non-aspirants for post-secondary academics. They are:

  • Less likely to have taken AP (17% vs. 24%) or honors (25% vs. 33%) classes.
  • More likely to have taken General College Prep classes (32% vs. 25%).[5]

Yet the higher education aspirations of Community College aspirants showed that this groups is *not* monolithic. Differences in high school coursework confirm that. Community college aspirants also aspiring to a four-year college and those solely interested in a community college differ on:

  • AP Courses: 22% vs. 8%
  • Honors Classes: 30% vs. 12%
  • General college prep: 34% vs. 27%
  • College Credit Courses: 24% vs. 15%

This pattern holds among both males and females. As observed previously, females tend to be better prepared than males with similar community college aspiration profiles.[6]

While students considering both community college and a 4-year college have stronger academic preparation than other would-be community college students, they are not quite as well prepared as students who are considering only a 4-year college. We see this on:

  • AP Course: 22% vs. 28%
  • Honors Classes: 30% vs. 39%


Interest in Community Colleges increases as GPA decreases. Twenty-eight percent of “C” students, but only 17% of “A” students are considering community college.

Majorities of community college aspirants at all GPA levels are also aspiring to a 4-year college degree. These majorities vary from 77% of the “A” students aspiring to community college to 55% of the “C” students.[7] Conversely, community college aspirants who are focused solely on attending community college range from 14% among “A” students to 30% among “C” students.

Graduating Class

As graduation approaches, more students consider community colleges. About 1 in 3 students (32%) are considering a community college by senior year. This is up from only 13% among freshmen.

High School Students: Aspiring to Community College Research from the Student Research Foundation

Career Pathway Influences

Students were asked to identify the top two influences on their future career pathway. The top five future career pathway influences cited by students aspiring to community colleges are:

  • own interests/ experiences (60%)
  • mothers (25%)
  • fathers (19%)
  • other family (13%)
  • teachers (13%)

These are the same top five influences on career pathways of students who do not aspire to community college. [8]

What is different is the proportion citing each of these influences across the four segments[9] of the community college market.

Own experiences and interests are more frequently cited by community college/four-year college aspirants (63%) and community college/career technical school aspirants (65%) than by those solely considering community college (52%).[10]

Mothers are most frequently cited by community college aspirants who are also considering an online college (30%) or a 4-year college (27%). In fact, mothers are less influential among career college aspirants who are solely focused on community college (23%) or who are considering both community college and a career tech school (19%).[11]

Fathers are most frequently cited as an influence by community college aspirants who are also considering a career/technical college (28%). Fathers are more of an influence for this subgroup of community college aspirants than for community college aspirants as a group (19%) or for those community college aspirants considering an online college (16%).

Teachers are most likely to be a career pathway influence on community college aspirants who are considering an online college (16%) or a career technical school (15%). Teachers are least important for those who are solely considering community college (12%).

Other family members are most often cited as a career influence on community college aspirants also considering online colleges (15%). Extended family is least likely to be cited by community college aspirants who are solely considering community colleges (11%).

The responses to this question may or may not mean that these five influencers are steering students toward the educational path that would help them achieve their dreams. However, they do suggest that community college aspirants focused solely on community college may have fewer influences in their lives to help steer them toward a brighter future. That, combined with lower GPAs and fewer college prep classes pose important challenges for community colleges. These institutions are often resource-strapped, but are being asked to serve a pool of students spanning the academic range.

Missed Opportunities?

Today’s digital natives live online – but only 5% of Community College aspirants site social media as an important career pathway influence.[12] Is social media ineffective in reaching the next generation of postsecondary students and new workers? Or has higher education not yet discovered ways to harness its power?

As noted earlier, students solely focused on community college as their preferred venue for post-secondary education identify fewer of the oft-cited career influences as guiding their career pathway. That may put them at a decided disadvantage relative to other community college aspirants who may be future classmates. Social media may be one way to help level the playing field. This might include mentoring, campus opportunities that enrich students’ experiences and shape new interests, and development of goals that can motivate them to get the most from their secondary school experiences (and take the right courses).

Implications for Community Colleges

Approximately 22% of high school students participating in a national survey of high school students express interest in attending a community college. These students are not monolithic. Understanding the diversity belying their shared interest in community colleges can help these institutions better attract, retain, and serve students so they can achieve their career goals.

  • Community colleges could benefit from increased appeal among Asian and African-American students. Community college interest among these students was lowest, but when students were interested they were more likely than others to express interest in 4-year colleges as well.
    • Market ways to help students take a lower-cost route to achieving degrees.
    • Explore ways to shatter stereotypes that limit understanding of what community colleges offer.
  • Community colleges could help narrow the gender gap in post-secondary education that leaves males less prepared for the 21st-century workforce.
    • Gender gaps are pervasive, regardless of race and ethnicity.
    • Closing the gender gap in post-secondary education could strengthen the nation’s readiness to meet demands of the 21st
  • Community colleges cannot serve their diverse student market with one-size fits all approaches – they need resources to serve diverse markets.
  • Students aspiring to move to 4-year colleges enter with stronger academic credentials than those who do not, but they need rigorous curricula to join peers who have spent their first two years at a 4-year college.
  • The small segment of students aspiring solely to community college may need different support: 1) to overcome weaknesses in the secondary school preparation and 2) to compensate for fewer influences guiding their career path.
  • Community colleges need help “rebranding” to attract the broad array of students they are trying to serve – thus overcoming stereotypes and student concerns.
    • Efforts to reach college-bound students concerned with the high cost of college may be reserved for junior or senior years when economic realities set in.
    • Efforts to serve students who have fewer resources and less academic preparation should begin earlier – freshman year or even middle school.
  • Reaching the influencers – a multi-layered strategy.
    • Provide secondary students with experiences that nurture interests and motivate students. Job shadowing alums who achieved success with an Associate Degree may be very important since surveys suggest those who are solely focused on community college are less likely to say their own experiences and interests have influenced their career path.
    • Reach out to parents. Parents are particularly important for students.
    • Help teachers become better informed about what today’s community colleges offer students who may be looking to avoid student loan debt or well-suited for technical careers that do not require a 4-year degree.


[1] The Educational Research Center of American (ERCA) managed surveys of national samples of students during the 2015-16 academic year for several Research Consortia. The survey was conducted in-class with paper surveys. The students represent a cross-section of college bound and non-college bound students. The margin of error for the combined surveys is +/- 1% at the 95% confidence interval. ERCA appreciates the support of its partners involved in these consortia: SkillsUSA, National Girls Collaborative Project, Manufacturing Institute, National Association of Biology Teachers, National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, and Destination Imagination.
[2] Students could not indicate the preference order.
[3] Roughly 23% of Whites and Native American aspire to community college compared with 19% of Asians.
[4] The sole exception is among African-Americans. Females (20%) more often than males (18%) aspire to solely community college.
[5] Community college aspirants and non-aspirants are substantially similar in college credit classes, International Baccalaureate, or involvement in AVID.
[6] In addition, the academic preparation of students considering community college and online college/career tech schools, as well those who do not aspire to community college but either opt for career technical schools/colleges, aspire to online colleges, or are uncertain of their future educational path look much like students who aspire solely to community college.
[7] At every GPA, more females than males aspiring to community college also aspire to a 4-year college.
[8] However, in 4 of the five cases, the proportion of those citing these influences are slightly lower among community college non-aspirants.
[9] These markets are students considering:

  • solely community college,
  • solely community college,
  • both community college and a 4-year college,
  • both community college and technical school/college, and
  • both community college and online college.

[10] In fact, the power of own interests and experiences is more frequently cited by these students than by students who plan to attend a 4-year college but do not aspire to community college (60%).
[11] Among those who are focused on a 4-year college and do not aspire to a community college, 24% cite mothers as an influence.
[12] Only 4% of community college non-aspirants cite it as an influence.