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Graduates line up for their procession before the Berkshire Community College commencement ceremony at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. on Friday, May 30, 2014. Credit: AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle, Stephanie Zollshan

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Community colleges are slowly increasing the number of graduates they’re turning out, according to a panel of experts who also warned that falling enrollment and funding problems could derail this progress.

Thirty-nine percent of students who start at a community college graduate from any institution within six years.

Researchers and college leaders told the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention that community colleges are 22 percent of the way to their 2020 goal set by the association and other groups in 2010 of increasing the number of community college degrees and credentials produced to five million per year.

Even though actual graduation rates declined slightly last year, a big spike in total enrollment has helped community colleges to turn out larger numbers of students.

But speakers repeatedly sounded alarms about challenges to this trend, including budget cuts and enrollment declines.

Intensive programs designed to smooth the path to degrees are expensive, said Gail Mellow, president of New York City’s LaGuardia Community College. Yet nationally, she said, per-student funding has dropped 8 percent in the past year.

“We need a new strategy for funding,” Mellow said. “I don’t see that national conversation.”

Programs to smooth the path to degrees are expensive, but funding is down.

Community college enrollment has also dipped, which often happens when the economy improves. When jobs aren’t available, people often turn to community colleges for job training; when employment rebounds, they don’t.

College leaders noted a number of new initiatives to increase completion rates.

Dual-credit programs, for example, in which high school students simultaneously attend community college classes, have exploded.

“I don’t believe in silver bullets,” said William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College in Texas, “but it is certainly part of the silver buckshot.”

Arizona’s Maricopa Community Colleges have redesigned their degree requirements to make it easier to transfer to Arizona State University, said the system’s provost, Maria Harper-Marinick.

President Barack Obama, Congress and state legislators have called on colleges to improve graduation rates, which are particularly low at community colleges.

The national six-year graduation rate last year actually fell from the previous year, to 55 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.

The graduation rate for students who begin at community colleges is even lower. About 39 percent of them graduate within six years from any institution, the clearinghouse reports, which was also a decline.

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Matt Krupnick is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times and the Hechinger Report. He was a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity's State Integrity Investigation...

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