College Persistence: Community Colleges and the Cost of Course Materials

I recently had the pleasure of representing Boundless at the Texas Community College Teachers’ Association (TCCTA) annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. With enrollment in the Texas community college system standing at nearly three quarters of a million, the members of the TCCTA are educating a substantial portion of the Texas student population.

While Texas did not provide the sunshine I had hoped for (it was 33 degrees and raining in San Antonio), it did provide for some excellent cross-cultural experiences (apparently in Texas they start shutting down highways when it’s cold?!). It also provided evidence that educators like Boundless sunglasses, Texans like their cowboy hats, and we all love a good photo op.

Boundless at TCCTA

A gracious invitation from the TCCTA Management Educators also provided me the opportunity to speak at one of the conference seminars, where I discussed what we do at Boundless, and our relevance in the community college context.

The background on why textbook costs matter is well-worn territory here at Boundless: over the past 30 years, textbook costs have risen at three times the rate of inflation. According to a recent study by Student PIRGs, nearly two-thirds of students have decided not to buy a textbook due to cost, and almost all of these students are afraid that this choice may cause their grades to suffer.

Now when we say “college student,” we are not, by and large, talking about eighteen year olds lying on the grass of the historic quad at a four-year, residential campus. In reality, only 1 in 100 college students in America attend a school ranked in the top 100; more than a third are studying part time, 48 are over the age of 25, and almost 50 are at community colleges.

To reiterate that fact: nearly half of all college students in America attend community colleges. Now, this number may have been familiar to the folks at TCCTA, but when I talk to almost anyone else, the importance of community colleges — as measured by sheer volume of students — comes as a surprise.

At Boundless, we care about community college students for more reasons than volume alone. As a percentage of total cost of tuition and fees, textbooks place a particularly heavy burden on community college students: the $1,200 that the average college student spends per year on textbooks and supplies can account for as much as 39% of total tuition and fees at a community college.

Furthermore, affordability turns out to matter when it comes to college persistence.

By some measures, the challenge in the US is not so much college access, but rather college persistence: in other words, staying in college. Among OECD countries, the US ranks 8th in college enrollment measures — but next to last, ahead only of Italy, in college completion (h/t on this stat to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed). Again, for community college educators, who see far too many of their students unable to successfully juggle work, family, and school, this may come as no surprise. For many others, however, even the term “college persistence” is a new one.

It turns out that the surest way for a student to obtain a degree is to stay in school, full time, until the required credits are earned. This sounds perhaps self-evident, but the numbers behind it are striking. According to a recent study, taking a break from college is a strong predictor of attrition. Of all college students who take a break — or “pause” their studies — only half ever return to school. Of students who pause study a second time, only 5% will go on to earn a degree.

So what does this have to do with textbook costs? Affordability is one of the top two most cited causes for pausing study (the other is balancing work and school). Students are putting school on hold because of cost, and every time they leave, their chances of finishing a degree diminish radically.

Now, I did not claim in Texas, and will not claim here, that textbook costs are the primary driver of the college persistence problem. Rather, in trying to tease apart the tangled threads of what makes it so challenging for so many students to finish a college degree, a few facts stand out to us here at Boundless: financial pressures cause students to drop out of school, and the cost of textbooks can make up a substantial portion of that pressure. Often, it is students at community colleges who feel this pressure the most.

Are you a community college professor or student? Would love to hear your thoughts on this post. Shoot me a note @MollyELindsay or molly [at] boundless [dot] com.