A sense of urgency has taken hold of higher education leaders nationwide. Reports of declining community college graduation rates and the lack of skilled workers have led policymakers and college leaders to sound the alarm and vow to do whatever it takes to lower the high rate of “dropouts” and equip students to meet the labor demands of an evolving economy. 

For example, in a policy brief about noncompleting students written for myFutureNC an organization focused on educational attainment Anita Brown-Graham and Catherine Moga Bryant describe the “high numbers of noncompleters in North Carolina” and argue that “while many enroll, too few North Carolina students who attend two- or four-year institutions complete their programs.” According to Brown-Graham and Bryant, the two primary reasons students fail to complete a credential in community college are “inadequate preparation and difficulty navigating the higher education system.” 

But is community college student performance as dire as Brown-Graham and Bryant suggest? After all, 42% of North Carolina’s community college students do graduate, transfer, or are still enrolled with 36 credits after six years. And while it’s that the majority of community college students don’t complete credentials, are all “noncompleters” failing to find meaningful employment? 

As it turns out, the story is much more complex than many college officials acknowledge. 

In their analyses of why students don’t finish their studies, policymakers overlook an important subset of the community college population: students who want to take a few courses, but who don’t intend to earn a credential or transfer. These students, sometimes referred to as “skills builders” or “upskillers,” only take the few specific courses they need to gain new skills for employment or to advance in their careers. Skills builders commonly take courses that train students in specific work-related fields, such as information technology or business management. 

University of Michigan professor Peter Riley Bahr closely studies skills builders and criticizes how policymakers often define success in terms of credential completion. In his 2016 study entitled The Labor Market Returns to a Community College Education for Non-Completing Students, Bahr stated, “in contradiction to popular notions, students who leave community college without a credential have not necessarily failed to achieve their goals or dropped out.” 

Instead of solely measuring student success based on credential attainment, Bahr argues that job earnings and employment retention are also valuable measures. Far from being mere dropouts or a deadweight to society, Bahr found that skills builders in certain fields experienced notable financial gains or “returns” for the college credits they earned. 

For example, students who took six college credits in public and protective services increased their annual earnings by $1,952; six credits in engineering and industrial technologies resulted in an annual wage increase of $1,600; for business and management students, $808; and for information technology courses, $524. 

“Given that the cost of two three-credit courses in a California community college is a mere $276, these returns are large indeed,” wrote Bahr. 

Additionally, Bahr said some of his previous research indicated that “about one in six students in California’s community college are highly successful noncompleters.” That means that, according to Bahr’s findings, nearly 17% of students who might be considered “failures” were found to be “highly successful” in the work force. 

Unfortunately, little is known about the success of noncompleters in North Carolina. That’s partly because the community college system primarily uses credential completion as its metric of student performance. 

Bill Schneider, N.C. Community College system associate vice president of research and performance management, told the Martin Center the system is working to compile additional data about student success and make it publicly available in the coming months. Hopefully that includes more precise information about the earnings of non-completers. 

In the end, the state of community college success doesn’t seem to be as grim as policymakers paint it to be.  

First, it distracts or blinds officials to the real needs of students and how colleges can best serve them. Second, it feeds into the completion crisis narrative that contributes to policymakers’ excessive focus on credential attainment. That excessive focus on credential attainment hurts the employment prospects of skills builders who, despite being competent workers, might appear “less qualified” on paper. 

Policymakers should discard their narrow and superficial view of community colleges’ mission. People attend community colleges for a wide number of reasons: to explore their interests, to figure out whether college is for them, to earn credits toward a four-year degree, to earn a work force credential, or simply to gain new, specific skills. It’s time that these leaders recognize that only some of those goals fit into the current “must complete” narrative. 

Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.