The Motivation Behind Attending Community Colleges

Strada Education Foundation recently interviewed Eloy Ortiz Oakley, CEO of College Futures Foundation to discuss some of the aspects of Strada’s research. Strada’s new report, “The Value of Community Colleges: Recent Students’ Motivations and Outcomes,” encapsulates numerous factors that motivated recent graduates to enroll in community college and provides guidance for the field.

When asked about his motivating factors to attend community college himself, Oakley shared that, “improving my economic mobility and finding a path to a career” was the only reason he decided to attend community college. “I had very little clue about what was possible but because my community college welcomed the top 100 percent of students, I was welcomed,” Oakley continued. “The journey, in hindsight, was not straightforward. On many occasions, but for a person that cared about my future gave me advice, I may still be wondering through the maze that college can be for many first-generation students. That defines the work going forward, to clarify the path to economic mobility for all learners.”

The research from Strada demonstrates that former community college students’ perceptions of the value of their education are relatively strong for those who complete an associate degree or transfer, but is weaker for those who complete certificates or do not complete a credential or transfer. Oakley suggests that these findings indicate that “community colleges need to create more transparent connections between students’ goals, skills-based credentials, and employment opportunities.” 

Findings from the report also highlight earnings disparities by race among those employed full time. While 58% of white community college alumni earn more than $48,000 per year, only 47% of Latino alumni and 35% of black alumni meet this threshold. When asked how community college and industry or workforce leaders can address this gap, Oakley stated that, “more-resourced learners have this access through family members or others who they routinely interact with, and this increases their connections to economic mobility opportunities…We need to see community colleges and business leaders create opportunities for learners to engage with industry sectors earlier on in their postsecondary experiences and make clear the path to gainful employment, particularly for learners of color.”

Strada asked Oakley how community colleges can engage students and policymakers to take advantage of the finding that those who complete an associate degree or successfully transfer to a four-year institution value their education at rates comparable to or higher than students who receive a bachelor’s degree. “Community college leaders need to work with local leaders, business leaders, and policymakers to highlight the economic gains of learners who complete key postsecondary milestones, and to reward colleges and leaders that enable learners to reach those outcomes,” Oakley commented. “Leaders also should also be doing more to give information to learners, families, and communities about how their program offerings translate to industry-relevant skills and job opportunities.”

Findings from the report suggest that the strongest predictor of positive perceptions of value is the extent to which recent students feel they developed specific skills during their education. Within the framework of the rapidly changing economic and workforce landscape, Oakley said that, “this is where ‘earn-and-learn’ opportunities and classroom learning can have an incredible impact on supporting learners to achieve their goals, and in my mind, community college and business leaders are responsible for ensuring that these opportunities are aligned and accessible.” 

Community colleges and relevant stakeholders must work to ensure students are acquiring the skills needed to achieve their goals. “The learning that students obtain in the context of work is critical to make the connection to skills,” Oakley said. “The more that we can show how classroom learning connects to meaningful skills in the workplace, the more motivated learners will be to continue their journeys.”

Findings from Strada’s report have sparked new conversations in the higher education community and Oakley is excited to see what advances the field makes. “At College Futures, we want to see a greater emphasis on socioeconomic mobility designed into the postsecondary experience that every learner can access. Especially for learners that have been historically underserved, creating clear on-ramps and off-ramps along a transparent spectrum of learning in pursuit of improving upward mobility is the conversation we want to lead in California and, in turn, have that conversation influence national dialogue.”