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Stratified Trajectories: Charting Equity Gaps in Program Pathways Among Community College Students

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A primary focus among colleges implementing student success reforms has been to increase overall rates of completing any credential and to reduce racial and socioeconomic equity gaps in such completion rates. The focus on general completion may overlook inequities in the type of program students complete, which is particularly significant given the wide variety of credentials offered at community colleges and the resulting variation in labor market returns among completers. Our study examines racial/ethnic stratification among community college students as they enter and progress through programs leading to higher or lower opportunities in the labor market. Using a discrete-time survival analysis and longitudinal enrollment and transcript data. We track enrollment, completion, and transfer for up to 9 years. We also measure achievement of academic milestones (such as credit accrual) along educational pathways associated with higher rates of credential completion and transfer over the long term. Results suggest that a significant gap in the likelihood of bachelor’s degree completion between Black and White students emerges episodically, while the gap between Hispanic and White students develops earlier and remains consistent over time. Results also suggest that, while all students generally benefit from attainment of academic milestones, doing so disproportionately benefits Black and Hispanic students.

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  1. Due to data availability, the post-completion value of degrees/certificates is classified by students’ immediate post-completion earnings in the six to nine months after exit. Thus, while transfer degrees may lead to high market-valued employment once students transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees, transfer degrees after completion have low immediate market value.

  2. We use a state-wide degree code to identify the transfer-oriented degrees and workforce-oriented degrees, then link them with student program enrollment (degrees and programs share the same CIPs). When some programs are not designated to graduate students with credentials or are unable to link to the specific credentials due to the CIP code errors, the linkage between programs and credentials is missing, making us unable to categorize every program based on the degree code.

  3. In the typical survival analysis, an event is an outcome of interest, such as death, disease occurrence, or recovery. In the survival analysis employed in educational research, an event is usually an educational outcome, such as graduation, transfer, or stop out.

  4. In survival analysis, being "at risk" means that the subject has not experienced an event before time t and is not censored before or at time t.

  5. We include cohort fixed effects in the model to control the cohort-based difference in terms of outcomes.

  6. Despite steadily rising rates of completion, Hispanic students still have low levels of postsecondary attainment; nationally, Black students exhibit lower rates of first-year persistence and higher dropout rates than White students (Espinosa et al., 2019).

  7. In other races/ethnicities, 46% students are Asian, 29% are two or more races, the remaining includes American Indian (7%), Pacific Islander (2%), Native Hawaiian (1%), Alaska Native (less than 1%), and unknown race (17%).

  8. Since very few students transferred or obtained workforce degrees after 6 years, the probability of transfer or completing medium- or high-paying workforce programs becomes extremely small for all racial/ethnic groups. We present the results of transfer and workforce outcomes for only 6 years.

  9. Because the hazard probability of transfer/associate degree completion after 6 years remains statically low, we only track transfer/associate degree completion for 6 years while track students’ bachelor’s degree outcomes for up to 9.25 years.

  10. We define stop out as not being enrolled at any institution for four consecutive terms (1 year). We also use two and three terms as alternatives; the results are robust.

  11. We focus on the outcomes of transfer and BA completion in this section since the share of students completing mid- or high-paying workforce program credentials is small and the results are noisy. Impacts of milestone completion on attaining mid- and high-value workforce credentials are positive for all racial/ethnic subgroups, but we do not observe disproportionate impacts. The full results for the mid- or high-paying workforce degrees are presented in the Appendix.


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Funding for this study was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundation. We are grateful for excellent feedback from Davis Jenkins, Kevin Dougherty, Elizabeth Kopko, Hana Lahr, and attendees of the 2020 Association for Education Finance Policy Annual Conference and 2021 American Educational Research Association Annual Conference. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the funder or any state entity. Any errors are those of the authors.

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Correspondence to Yuxin Lin.

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Lin, Y., Fay, M.P. & Fink, J. Stratified Trajectories: Charting Equity Gaps in Program Pathways Among Community College Students. Res High Educ 64, 547–573 (2023).

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