Title bar

Chapter 4

Undergraduate Education: The Role of 2-Year Institutions

Two-year institutions, or community colleges, operate in every State and enroll half of the students who begin college in the United States. Since their origins in the early years of the 20th century, 2-year institutions have played a distinct role in higher education. Most 4-year colleges and universities admit only those students who meet certain academic requirements. Two-year colleges have traditionally exercised less selective admissions policies. These differences stem from the fact that 2-year institutions have provided higher education to students who otherwise might not have access to it: students who could not afford high tuition, who could not afford the time to attend college full time, and who may not have been adequately prepared in school (Cohen and Brawer 1989, p. 14).
In 1991, almost 50 percent of all first-time first-year students attending college were in 2-year institutions; a slightly higher percentage of the underrepresented minorities who were enrolled as first-time first-year students, 52 percent, attended 2-year institutions. (See appendix tables 4-3 and 5-5.) In the last decade, both the number and the variety of students attending 2-year institutions have increased substantially. Community colleges have attracted large numbers of older students and part-time students, as well as growing numbers of women, students who are members of racial/ethnic minorities, and students with disabilities.
Two-year institutions often have specialized missions. In pursuit of their higher education role, most community colleges perform several functions: preparing students academically so they can transfer to a 4-year institution and providing vocational-technical education, continuing education, remedial education, and community service. About one-fifth of students who attend a 2-year institution eventually attend a 4-year college or university (Adelman 1988). Most 2-year institutions have also assumed a special mission in relation to education in scientific and technical fields (National Science Foundation/SRS 1994, p. 52). (See figures 4-1a, 4-1b, 4-1c and 4-1d.)

Figure 4-1a Figure 4-1b
Figure 4-1c Figure 4-1d

Overall enrollment trends for higher education provide an important context for considering the role of 2-year institutions. Full-time and part-time enrollment increases occurred in both 2-year and 4-year institutions. But 2-year and 4-year institutions differ in the share of enrollment that is part time: 63 percent in 2-year institutions in 1991, compared with 25 percent in 4-year institutions. At 2-year institutions, part-time enrollment increased faster than full-time between 1980 and 1991, 30 percent versus 22 percent. (See figure 4-2.)

Figure 4-2

Future patterns may change because of demographic changes. The numbers of first-year students entering higher education institutions for the first time have dropped at both 2-year and 4-year institutions. (See appendix tables 4-3 and 5-5.) How these entering students choose institutions, and whether they proceed with their studies full time or part time, will determine the direction of future trends.

Persons With Disabilities
Sidebar: After the 2-Year Experience
Sidebar: Essential Factors in Teaching Mathematics to American Indians

TOC buttonHelp buttonAbbreviations 
buttonNSF button