Community colleges are a critical access point to higher education in the United States. Last year, roughly 1,000 community colleges enrolled more than 5.5 million students. These schools are also a gateway to a four-year degree for many students. Roughly half of all bachelor’s degree students in the U.S. previously attended a community college.

Furthermore, community colleges serve a large share of students who are low-income or first-generation college students, as well as those who are older or from underrepresented minority groups. Given their low tuition and widespread accessibility, community colleges are key to expanding higher educational attainment and boosting skills in this country, which can provide an important avenue for upward social mobility.

People who earn an associate degree are rewarded in the labor market. One recent study indicates that an associate degree yields a causal earnings premium of about 30% over a high school degree. Those who begin at a community college and successfully transfer to a four-year degree-granting institution also earn higher wages and greater economic security, given the earnings premium associated with a bachelor’s degree. However, degree completion rates among degree-seeking students at community colleges tend to be quite low.

Expanded student supports might be the key to improving student outcomes at community colleges. Many community colleges are resource-constrained and unable to offer comprehensive student supports. Community colleges on average spend less per pupil than do four-year public universities. There is now a growing body of evidence showing that comprehensive student support programs lead to increased persistence and completion among low-income students at community colleges.

Read the full article about support systems for community college students at Brookings.