Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center explores the notion that community college “dropouts” represent a public policy problem.

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 non-completing students written for myFutureNC (an organization focused on educational attainment), Anita Brown-Graham and Catherine Moga Bryant describe the “high numbers of non-completers in North Carolina” and argue that “while many enroll, too few North Carolina students who attend two- or four-year institutions complete their programs.” …

… But is community college student performance as dire as Brown-Graham and Bryant suggest? After all, 42 percent of North Carolina’s community college students do graduate, transfer, or are still enrolled with 36 credits after six years. And while it’s true that the majority of community college students do not complete credentials, are all “non-completers” 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.