Supplemental Enrollment Partnerships in Higher Education

Are two-year colleges a revenue threat? Or can we see them as retention partners for our four-year institutions? 

Dr. Vivian Liu, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about supplemental enrollment partnerships in higher education.

Are Two-Year Schools a Revenue Threat?

Each kind of institution plays a distinct role. At four-year schools, students pursue a bachelor’s degree. At two-year institutions, students primarily seek technical degrees or credits they can transfer into a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school. 

Twice as many students attend four-year schools, but community colleges are drawing more attention. Many are now free, which prospective students see as a major benefit. And four-year colleges are getting nervous.  

“However, I would say that the existence of two-year schools itself is not the threat,” Vivian said, “but what really changes is student need.”

Today’s students need low tuition. Minority students, working adults, and low-income students  — who might not have considered college 15 years ago — now plan to enroll. But they don’t want to take on debt and can’t afford out-of-pocket costs. Consequently, they are looking for affordable educational options. If four-year and two-year colleges work together to help these students, both institutions could benefit.

Such a partnership offers other benefits, too. Community college students already hold two years of schooling. They’ve proven their ability to succeed in school. And they’re motivated. 

If a student struggles at a four-year school, or just decides it’s not for them, they can always transfer back to a two-year institution. You’re not losing revenue because that student would leave no matter what. 

What Is Supplemental Enrollment?

Supplemental enrollment refers to students at four-year schools taking courses at community colleges. According to the data, these students are more likely to hold a GPA below a 3.0 and have a low graduation rate, sometimes falling under 50%.

If working with two year colleges means helping the middle-to-lower-achieving student to stay in college, then four-year schools are more likely to retain that student to the end.

“In a sense, you’re not losing revenue,” Vivian explained. “You’re actually gaining.”

Outcomes of Supplemental Enrollment Partnerships

How well do supplemental enrollment students perform at school and at work?

To find out, Vivian accessed the national data of students who were tenth grade in 2002 and tracked them for eight years. About 12% of those students took community college courses. Their motivations included cost and convenience as well as a chance to take difficult courses without compromising their GPAs. Some students took summer courses at a two-year college to accelerate their time to graduation and save money on school costs. 

Vivian’s research found that on average, a students who takes a few courses at community colleges has a 4.5 percentage point higher bachelor’s degree completion rate. If you think of an average 60% graduation rate increase, a 4.5 percentage point is pretty high. And because they are more likely to graduate, these students also earn more — about $1.40 dollar more per hour. It may not sound very much, but if you multiply it by 40 hours a week, you get about $250 a month more, which is pretty good.

Is There an Ideal Student Enrollment Path?

There’s no one ideal path for students. In general, four-year schools provide students with more choices around cost, location, different formats, and different difficulty levels to promote individualized learning. That would be the ideal path. 

“However,” Vivian said, “one four-year institution cannot achieve everything. And that’s why they should partner with a community college.” 

Think about it: schools want students to be successful and recoup the cost of learning. Students want to graduate and get a job. If a community college system and a four-year college can work together to make those goals achievable, everyone wins.

Quelling the Fears of Four-Year Institutions

Four-year institutions get nervous about losing students to two-year colleges if those learners start taking classes there. That student might feel a community college is cheaper and more comfortable, so why not stay there?

This fear is logical but not borne out by research. 

“Our study showed that students who have taken a few courses in community colleges generally return to their four-year school and take more courses than those who have never taken any community college courses,” Vivian said. 

Instead, institutions should worry that students will lose learning over the summer if they don’t keep up their schooling. This is a common phenomenon in K-12 education, and with the longer break that college students enjoy, it’s probably more significant for adult learners. 

Another concern is summer jobs. Having that increase in earnings during the summer may actually make them not want to come back. All of a sudden you’re paying money instead of earning money when you return to school. Sticking with your education at a two-year school could help mitigate this concern.

Finally, students do recognize the substantial difference between four-year schools and community colleges. They want to come back. They want to graduate from their primary institution.

Next Steps for Supplemental Enrollment Opportunities

“Be transparent,” Vivian said. “Knowledge is power.” 

Students find supplemental enrollment opportunities very convenient and flexible. These learners value the low cost and ability to accelerate their education. Sometimes, though, they need to be reminded that supplemental education offers a good pathway because it can feel inconvenient and even scary to them.

Institutions also need to be clear about transfer policies, tuition, financial aid, and GPAs for students participating in supplemental education programs. It should take no more than three clicks in a Google search to be able to find this information.

Knowledge is power for students and for institutions. Make it accessible, and see what you can achieve.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Vivian Liu from Columbia University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.