The Community College Experience and Educational Equality: Theory, Research, and Policy

  • Lauren SchuddeEmail author
  • Eric Grodsky
Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)


Community colleges serve as the point of entry to higher education for many Americans, but enrollees exhibit high rates of non-completion. A central debate in the sociological research on community colleges concerns whether these institutions enhance opportunity by improving educational access or constrain opportunity by hindering students from achieving their educational aspirations. This chapter lays out the history of community colleges, describes relevant sociological theories, and reviews key developments in research, emphasizing research on the potentially democratizing and diversionary effects of community colleges. Finally, we discuss how sociology can inform the evolving policy discussion over the role community colleges play in education and social mobility.


Cooling out Community college effects Heterogeneous treatment effects For-profit institutions Sticker price Transfer agreements 


  1. Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the tool box: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor’s degree attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.Google Scholar
  2. AERA. (2000). Position statement on high-stakes testing (Vol. 2016). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  3. Alba, R. D., & Lavin, D. E. (1981). Community colleges and tracking in higher education. Sociology of Education, 54(4), 223–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alexander, K., Bozick, R., & Enwisle, D. (2008). Warming up, cooling out, or holding steady? Persistence and change in educational expectations after high school. Sociology of Education, 81(4), 371–396. Scholar
  5. Allen, D., & Dadgar, M. (2012). Does dual enrollment increase students’ success in college? Evidence from a quasi-experimental analysis of dual enrollment in New York City. New Directions for Higher Education, 2012(158), 11–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. An, B. P. (2013a). The impact of dual enrollment on college degree attainment: Do low-SES students benefit? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(1), 57–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. An, B. P. (2013b). The influence of dual enrollment on academic performance and college readiness: Differences by socioeconomic status. Research in Higher Education, 54(4), 407–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Anderson, G., Alfonso, M., & Sun, J. (2006a). Rethinking cooling out at public community colleges: An examination of fiscal and demographic trends in higher education and the rise of statewide articulation agreements. The Teachers College Record, 108(3), 422–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Anderson, G., Sun, J. C., & Alfonso, M. (2006b). Effectiveness of statewide articulation agreements on the probability of transfer: A preliminary policy analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 29(3), 261–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Andrews, R., Li, J., & Lovenheim, M. F. (2014). Heterogeneous paths through college: Detailed patterns and relationships with graduation and earnings. Economics of Education Review, 42, 93–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., & Levey, T. (2006). New evidence on college remediation. Journal of Higher Education, 77, 886–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bahr, P. R. (2008a). Cooling out in the community college: What is the effect of academic advising on students’ chances of success? Research in Higher Education, 49(8), 704–732. Scholar
  13. Bahr, P. R. (2008b). Does mathematics remediation work?: A comparative analysis of academic attainment among community college students. Research in Higher Education, 49(5), 420–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bahr, P. R. (2010). Preparing the underprepared: An analysis of racial disparities in postsecondary mathematics remediation. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(2), 209–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in U.S. college entry and completion. In G. Duncan & R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality and the uncertain life chances of low-income children (pp. 118–131). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  16. Bailey, T. R., Badway, N., & Gumport, P. (2003). For-profit higher education and community colleges. New York: Columbia University.Google Scholar
  17. Bailey, T. R., Jeong, D. W., & Cho, S.-W. (2010). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 255–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Bailey, T. R., Jaggars, S. S., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Bailey, T. R., Jenkins, D., Fink, J., Cullinane, J., & Schudde, L. (2016). Policy levers to strengthen community college transfer student success in Texas: Report to the greater Texas foundation. New York: Community College Research Center.Google Scholar
  20. Bastedo, M., & Jaquette, O. (2011). Running in place: Low-income students and the dynamics of higher education stratification. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33, 318–339. Scholar
  21. Bettinger, E., & Long, B. T. (2004). Shape up or ship out: The effect of remediation on underprepared students at four-year colleges (NBER Working Paper Series, (10369)). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  22. Boatman, A., & Long, B. T. (2010). Does remediation work for all students? How the effects of postsecondary remedial and developmental courses vary by level of academic preparation (An NCPR Working Paper). Retrieved from
  23. Bound, J., Lovenheim, M., & Turner, S. (2010). Why have college completion rates declined? An analysis of changing student preparation and collegiate resources. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2(3), 129–157. Scholar
  24. Bragg, D. D. (2001). Community college access, mission, and outcomes: Considering intriguing intersections and challenges. Peabody Journal of Education, 76(1), 93–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Bragg, D. D., Kim, E., & Barnett, E. A. (2006). Creating access and success: Academic pathways reaching underserved students. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2006(135), 5–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Breen, R., Choi, S., & Holm, A. (2015). Heterogeneous causal effects and sample selection bias. Sociological Science, 2, 351–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Brint, S. (2003). Few remaining dreams: Community colleges since 1985. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 586, 16–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Brint, S., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream: Community colleges and the promise of educational opportunity in America, 1900–1985. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Butler, S. M. (2015). Obama’s SOTU free college plan is bad for poor Americans. Retrieved from
  30. Cahalan, M., Perna, L., Yamashita, M., Ruiz, R., & Franklin, K. (2016). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 2016 historical trend report. Retrieved from
  31. Calcagno, J. C., & Long, B. T. (2008). The impact of postsecondary remediation using a regression discontinuity approach: Addressing endogenous sorting and noncompliance (NBER Working Paper Series, (14194)). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  32. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2010). Size and setting classification: Distribution of institutions and enrollments by classification category. Stanford: Carnegie Foundation.Google Scholar
  33. (2013). Table A-7: College enrollment of students 14 years old and over, by type of college, attendance status, age, and gender; October 1970 to 2013. Retrieved from
  34. Cho, S.-W., & Karp, M. (2013). Student success courses in the community college: Early enrollment and educational outcomes. Community College Review, 41(1), 86–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Clark, B. (1960a). The cooling-out function in higher education. The American Journal of Sociology, 65(6), 569–576. Scholar
  36. Clark, B. (1960b). The open door college: A case study. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  37. Clark, B. (1980). The “cooling-out” function revisited. New Directions for Community Colleges, 8(32), 15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Cohen, A. M., Brawer, F. B., & Kisker, C. B. (2014). The American community college (6th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  39. Deil-Amen, R. (2011). Socio-academic integrative moments: Rethinking academic and social integration among two-year college students in career-related programs. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(1), 54–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Deil-Amen, R., & Rosenbaum, J. E. (2002). The unintended consequences of stigma-free remediation. Sociology of Education, 75(3), 249–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Deil-Amen, R., & Rosenbaum, J. (2003). The social prerequisites of success: Can college structure reduce the need for social know-how? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 580, 120–143. Scholar
  42. Deming, D. J., Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2012). The for-profit postsecondary school sector: Nimble critters or agile predators? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(1), 139–164. Scholar
  43. Denning, J. T. (2017). College on the cheap: Consequences of community college tuition reductions. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 9(2), 155–188.Google Scholar
  44. DiPrete, T. A., & Buchmann, C. (2013). The rise of women: The growing gender gap in education and what it means for American schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  45. Dougherty, K. (1992). Community colleges and baccalaureate attainment. The Journal of Higher Education, 63(2), 188–214. Scholar
  46. Dougherty, K. (1994). The contradictory college: The conflicting origins, impacts, and futures of the community college. Albany: Suny Press.Google Scholar
  47. Doyle, W. R. (2009). The effect of community college enrollment on bachelor’s degree completion. Economics of Education Review, 28(2), 199–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. (2015). Tennessee reconnect. Retrieved from
  49. Dual enrollment in Texas: State policies that strengthen new pathways to and through college for low-income youth (testimony of Joel Vargas). (2010). Joint Interim Hearing before Senate Higher Education Committee and Denate Education Committee on Dual Credit, Austin, TX.Google Scholar
  50. Friedel, J. N., & Wilson, S. L. (2015). The new reverse transfer: A national landscape. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(1), 70–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Goffman, E. (1952). On cooling the mark out. Psychiatry, 15, 451–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Goldrick-Rab, S. (2006). Following their every move: An investigation of social-class differences in college pathways. Sociology of Education, 79(1), 67–79. Scholar
  53. Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). Paying the price: College costs, financial aid, and the betrayal of the American dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kendall, N. (2014). Redefining college affordability: Securing America’s future with a free two year college option. Retrieved from
  55. Goldrick-Rab, S., & Pfeffer, F. T. (2009). Beyond access: Explaining socioeconomic differences in college transfer. Sociology of Education, 82(2), 101–125. Scholar
  56. Goldrick-Rab, S., Schudde, L., & Stampen, J. (2014). Making college affordable: Rethinking voucher-driven approaches to federal student aid. In A. Kelly & S. Goldrick-Rab (Eds.), Reinventing financial aid: Charting a new course to college affordability. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.Google Scholar
  57. Goldrick-Rab, S., Kelchen, R., Harris, D. N., & Benson, J. (2016). Reducing income inequality in educational attainment: Experimental evidence on the impact of financial aid on college completion. American Journal of Sociology, 121(6), 1762–1817. Scholar
  58. Gonzalez, A., & Hilmer, M. J. (2006). The role of 2-year colleges in the improving situation of Hispanic postsecondary education. Economics of Education Review, 25(3), 249–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Goodman, J., Hurwitz, M., & Smith, J. (2015). College access, initial college choice and degree completion (National Bureau of Economic Research, (20996)). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  60. Handel, S. J., & Williams, R. A. (2012). The promise of the transfer pathway: Opportunity and challenge for community college students seeking the baccalaureate degree. Retrieved from
  61. Haveman, R. H., & Smeeding, T. M. (2006). The role of higher education in social mobility. The Future of Children, 16(2), 125–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Hoffman, N., Vargas, J., & Santos, J. (2008). On ramp to college: A state policymaker’s guide to dual enrollment. Retrieved from
  63. Hood, L., Hunt, E., & Haeffele, L. M. (2009). Illinois post-secondary transfer students: Experiences in navigating the higher education transfer system. Planning and Changing, 40(1/2), 116.Google Scholar
  64. Horn, L., & Skomsvold, P. (2011). Web tables: Community college student outcomes, 1994–2009 (NCES publication 2012–253). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.Google Scholar
  65. Hossler, D., Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Ziskin, M., Chen, J., Zerquera, D., & Torres, V. (2012). Transfer & mobility: A national view of pre-degree student movement in postsecondary institutions. Herndon: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.Google Scholar
  66. Jenkins, D., Kadlec, A., & Votruba, J. (2014). Maximizing resources for student success: The business case for regional public universities to strengthen communtiy college transfer pathways. Retrieved from
  67. Kalogrides, D., & Grodsky, E. (2011). Something to fall back on: Community colleges as a safety net. Social Forces, 89(3), 853–878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Kolodner, M. (2015, November 4). Alabama offers high school students—and their parents—tuition-free community college. The Hechinger report. Retrieved from
  69. Labaree, D. (2013). A system without a plan: Emergence of an American system of higher education in the twentieth century. Bildungsgeschichte. International Journal for the Historiography of education, 3(1), 46–59.Google Scholar
  70. Leigh, D. E., & Gill, A. M. (2003). Do community colleges really divert students from earning bachelor’s degrees? Economics of Education Review, 22(1), 23–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Leigh, D. E., & Gill, A. M. (2004). The effect of community colleges on changing students’ educational aspirations. Economics of Education Review, 23(1), 95–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Long, B. T., & Kurlaender, M. (2009). Do community colleges provide a viable pathway to a baccalaureate degree? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(1), 30–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Martorell, P., & McFarlin, I., Jr. (2011). Help or hindrance? The effects of college remediation on academic and labor market outcomes. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(2), 436–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Monaghan, D. B., & Attewell, P. (2015). The community college route to the bachelor’s degree. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(1), 70–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Museus, S. D., Lutovsky, B. R., & Colbeck, C. L. (2007). Access and equity in dual enrollment programs: Implications for policy formation. Higher Education in Review, 4, 1–19.Google Scholar
  76. NCES. (2014a). Digest of education statistics 2014. Retrieved from
  77. NCES. (2014b). Profile of undergraduate students: 2011–2012. Retrieved from
  78. (2015). Oregon’s aspirations for student attainment match the stakes. Retrieved from
  79. Pallas, A. M. (2000). The effects of schooling on individual lives. In M. Hallinan (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of education (pp. 499–525). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  80. Parsad, B., & Lewis, L. (2003). Remedial education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall 2000. Retrieved from
  81. Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  82. Patterson, O. (2014, December 1). How sociologists made themselves irrelevant. The Chronical of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  83. Person, A., Rosenbaum, J., & Deil-Amen, R. (2006). Student planning and information problems in different college structures. The Teachers College Record, 108(3), 374–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Provasnik, S., & Planty, M. (2008). Community colleges: Special supplement to the condition of education statistics 2008. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.Google Scholar
  85. Radford, A., & Horn, L. (2012). Web tables: An overview of classes taken and credits earned by beginning postsecondary students. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.Google Scholar
  86. Reardon, S. F., & Bischoff, K. (2011). Income inequality and income segregation. American Journal of Sociology, 116(4), 1092–1153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Reyes, P., Alexander, C., & Gu, X. (2016). Texas reverse transfer initiative. Paper presented at the Texas Higher Education Symposium, Austin, TX.Google Scholar
  88. Reynolds, C. L. (2012). Where to attend? Estimating the effects of beginning college at a two-year institution. Economics of Education Review, 31(4), 345–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Reynolds, J., Stewart, M., MacDonald, R., & Sischo, L. (2006). Have adolescents become too ambitious? High school seniors’ educational and occupational plans, 1976 to 2000. Social Problems, 53(2), 186–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Roderick, M., Nagaoka, J., & Coca, V. (2009). College readiness for all: The challenge for urban high schools. The Future of Children, 19(1), 185–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Roksa, J., & Keith, B. (2008). Credits, time, and attainment: Articulation policies and success after transfer. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(3), 236–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Roksa, J., Grodsky, E., Arum, R., & Gamoran, A. (2007). Changes in higher education and social stratification in the United States. In Y. Shavit, R. Arum, & A. Gamoran (Eds.), Stratification in higher education (pp. 165–191). Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  93. Root, M. (2013). Essential elements of state policy for college completion. Retrieved from Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.Google Scholar
  94. Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Beyond college for all. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  95. Rosenbaum, J. E., Deil-Amen, R., & Person, A. E. (2007). After admission: From college access to college success. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  96. Rosenbaum, J. E., Ahearn, C., Becker, K., & Rosenbaum, J. (2015). The new forgotten half and research directions to support them. New York: William T. Grant Foundation.Google Scholar
  97. Rouse, C. E. (1995). Democratization or diversion? The effect of community colleges on educational attainment. Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, 13(2), 217–224.Google Scholar
  98. Saw, G. (2016). Reducing or reinforcing inequality? Evaluating the impact of postsecondary remediation on college outcomes. Dissertation, Michigan State University, East LansingGoogle Scholar
  99. Schneider, B., & Stevenson, D. (2000). The ambitious generation America’s teenagers, motivated but directionless. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  100. Schudde, L., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). Extending opportunity, perpetuating privilege: Institutional stratification amid educational expansion. In M. Bastedo, P. G. Altbach, & P. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the 21st century (4th ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  101. Schudde, L., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2016). Pell grants as performance-based scholarships? An examination of satisfactory academic progress requirements in the nation’s largest need-based aid program. Research in Higher Education, 57, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Scott-Clayton, J. (2011). The shapeless river: Does a lack of structure inhibit students’ progress at Communtiy College? (CCRC Working Paper). New York: Community College Research Center.Google Scholar
  103. Scott-Clayton, J., & Belfield, C. (2015). Improving the accuracy of remedial placement. New York: Community College Research Center.Google Scholar
  104. Scott-Clayton, J., & Rodriguez, O. (2014). Development, discouragement, or diversion? New evidence on the effects of college remediation policy. Education Finance and Policy, 10, 4–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Scott-Clayton, J., & Rodriguez, O. (2015). Development, discourgement, or diversion: New evidence on the effects of college remediation policy. Education Finance and Policy, 10(1), 4–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Scott-Clayton, J., Crosta, P. M., & Belfield, C. R. (2014). Improving the targeting of treatment evidence from college remediation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(3), 371–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. Scrivener, S., & Weiss, M. J. (2009, August). More guidance, better results? Three-year effects of an enhanced student services program at two community colleges. New York: MDRC.Google Scholar
  108. Scrivener, S., Weiss, M. J., Ratledge, A., Rudd, T., Sommo, C., & Fresques, H. (2015, February). Doubling graduation rates: Three-year effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for developmental education students. New York: MDRC.Google Scholar
  109. Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Wakhungu, P. K., Yuan, X., & Harrell, A. T. (2015). Transfer and mobility: A national view of student movement in postsecondary institutions, fall 2008 Cohort. Herndon: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.Google Scholar
  110. Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2012). Digest of education statistics 2011. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.Google Scholar
  111. Sparks, D., & Malkus, N. (2013). Table 270: Percentage of first-year undergraduate students who took remedial education courses, by selected student and institution characteristics: 2003–04 and 2007–08 Digest of Education Statistics 2012. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  112. Speroni, C. (2011). Determinants of students’ success: The role of advanced placement and dual enrollment programs (An NCPR Working Paper). New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research.Google Scholar
  113. Staklis, S., Bersudskaya, V., & Horn, L. (2012). Students attending for-profit postsecondary institutions: demographics, enrollment characteristics, and 6-year outcomes. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.Google Scholar
  114. Stoltzfus, K. (2015, December 21). As plans for free community college spread, educators seek to include adult learners. The Chronicle of Higher Education.Google Scholar
  115. THECB. (2014). Improving transfer to increase student success. Austin: The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.Google Scholar
  116. THECB. (2015). Draft of the next higher education strategic plan for Texas. Austin: The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Retrieved from
  117. Tierney, W. (2011). Too big to fail: The role of for-profit colleges and universities in American higher education. Change, 43(6), 27–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  118. Tierney, W. (2015). Why free college tuition is a bad idea: Water and college. Retrieved from
  119. Velez, W. (1985). Finishing college: The effects of college type. Sociology of Education, 58(3), 191–200. Scholar
  120. (2011). Meeting the nation’s 2020 goal: State targets for increasing the number and percentage of college graduates with degrees. Retrieved from
  121. (2015). Fact sheet—White House unveils America’s college promise proposal: Tuition-free community college for responsible students. Retrieved from
  122. Wolfers, J. (2015). How economists came to dominate the conversation. The New York Times, p. A3. Retrieved from
  123. Xu, D., Jaggars, S. S., & Fletcher, J. (2016, April). How and why does two-year college entry influence baccalaureate aspirants’ academic and labor market outcomes? New York: Community College Research Center.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.University of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations