Community Colleges: Targeted Investments Could Improve Student Completion Rates

  • Only 24% of the Oregon community college students completed an associate’s degree or certificate, putting Oregon’s education and workforce goals in jeopardy.
  • Community colleges have introduced sound practices to improve student success, but they reach less than one-quarter of the students in need.
  • Coordination, support and analytic capacity are needed to improve student success and to assess proposed changes, such as outcome-based funding.

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Executive Summary

Low community college completion rates jeopardize state goals

To improve the economy and quality of life of Oregonians, the State set an ambitious education goal that by 2025: 404020

  • 40% of adult Oregonians will have at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • 40% will have an associate’s degree or certificate (“middle 40”)
  • The remaining 20% or less will have a high school diploma or equivalent.

In 2013 only 17% of adults had an associate’s degree or certificate. To meet the middle 40 goal, community college completion rates must improve.

We tracked degree-seeking students who started college in 2007-08, and found that only 24% completed a degree or certificate at an Oregon community college within seven years. In a national study, Oregon ranked 32nd out of 36 states studied for community college completion rates.

Oregon completion rates were even lower for black (15%), Hispanic (21%), American Indian (22%), Pacific Islander (16%) and multi-racial (19%) students.

Students face challenges to complete

dreamstime_s_31574630Community college students can face multiple challenges to finishing a degree or certificate. Many students are returning students and have life responsibilities, such as work or caring for family members that compete with the classroom for priority. This may be part of the reason that most students attend part-time and take longer to finish.

With open access policies, relatively affordable tuition, accessible locations, and a variety of programs, community colleges attract diverse students, including those who may need extra academic support or have fewer financial resources.

Student success has personal and statewide impacts

dreamstime_s_41717381Many community college students come from underserved and diverse backgrounds. Providing additional supports to these students can help address opportunity gaps, end generational cycles of poverty, and increase opportunities for upward mobility.

A more skilled workforce can also fill high demand positions, improving state and local
economies. State revenue also rises as graduates contribute more to tax rolls and are less reliant on public assistance.

Strategies that could boost completion rates do not reach most students

Oregon community colleges are implementing national leading practices to promote student success and support their students. An example is a student success course that covers topics such as finding campus resources, study skills, and time management. Due to capacity limitations, most of these strategies do not reach more than a quarter of the students they are targeted to serve.


State outcomes-based funding requires continued assessment and monitoring

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) is considering a proposal to change the funding distribution model from one based solely on enrollment to one based partially on enrollment and partially on the number of completions and progression milestones reached. This change is aimed at improving student success. Some colleges have concerns about unintended consequences.

If the proposal is adopted, ongoing analysis and attention will be needed to assess the effectiveness of the model and monitor impacts on student education and colleges.

Capacity constraints hinder student success strategies

Colleges report that the biggest challenges to expanding student success strategies are capacity constraints. These constraints, summarized below, exist both at the colleges and at the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development (CCWD).

dreamstime_s_5947882Limited and Competing Resources: Community colleges have few resources to devote to student success initiatives.

State Coordination and Strategic Support: CCWD has less capacity than it once did to help community colleges coordinate and implement student success and completion initiatives.

Data Informed Decision-Making and Analysis: 

  • Most colleges have limited capacity and expertise to analyze data for decision-making and continuous improvement.
  • CCWD has limited capacity to analyze data for state initiatives, to support small colleges, or to assess the implementation of outcomes-based funding.
  • Community colleges lack information about their students before and after they leave college.


To better support strategies that promote community college student success and completion, we recommend that the Oregon Education Investment Board, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, and/or the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development coordinate to:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities and increase capacity for coordination and support of student success and completion initiatives.
  • Continue to invest in developing the statewide longitudinal data system to track student progress and outcomes, and ensure that investment continues for ongoing administration.
  • Increase capacity to analyze data to inform state strategic initiatives and support small colleges.
  • If the state moves forward with outcomes-based funding, ensure capacity to assess the effectiveness of the model and monitor impacts on student education and colleges.
  • Continue to use at least 1% of the Community College Support Fund-Strategic Fund to invest in community college student success initiatives.

To improve student outcomes and expand initiatives, we recommend the community colleges consider:

  • Aligning budget allocation to strategic goals that forward student success initiatives.
  • Prioritizing investment in increased analysis capacity for decision-making and continuous improvement.
  • Coordinating and combining resources to fund statewide projects, materials and training to support student success initiatives.

Agency Response

The Executive Director of the Higher Education Coordinating Council and the Commissioner of the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development responded to our audit. They agree with the recommendations and identify actions underway to address them.

Read the entire audit report