This has been a rocky year for higher education in the United States. States and local communities face the most severe financial constraints that have been experienced since most community colleges opened their doors. Federal panels abound examining the practices of all higher education institutions, questioning our costs, productivity and quality. Gainful employment rules and the tightening accreditation standards promise additional, unfunded mandates and new accountability requirements. In the middle of all of this, all institutions and community colleges in particular, struggle to offer a highly valued service to an increasingly diverse array of students and community partners with increasingly scarce resources.
So how are we doing? If the sheer quantity of students attaining degrees and other formal awards is any measure of success — and many argue it’s the most important measure — then this year’s data on associate degree and other pre-baccalaureate certificates is good news. Based on preliminary national data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of associate degrees, one-year certificates, and two-year certificates reached an all-time high and both the numerical and percentage increase over the past year are the largest in recent history for all three award types.
As we note each year in this analysis, traditional community colleges (i.e., those in the public, two-year sector) have the largest market share of associate degrees and pre-baccalaureate certificates, but they share the market with an increasingly diverse array of other public, private non-profit, and private-for-profit education providers. As many traditional community colleges have expanded their offerings to include some bachelor’s degrees, several for-profit online providers have emerged as leading institutions in associate degree conferrals, with the University of Phoenix topping the list with 33,449 degrees conferred in just one year through its online campus.