The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

going back to college after graduating
Skagit Valley College, which, like other community colleges, has graduates of four-year universities among its students. Credit: Skagit Valley College

Liliana Ibarra’s bachelor’s degree in business administration from Washington State University couldn’t save her from the unemployment line. Now she’s banking on the idea that something else can: community college.

Ibarra is back in a classroom, but this time it’s at Skagit Valley College, about an hour north of Seattle. She expects to receive an associate degree in accounting in June, and use it to start her own company.

“When this opportunity came up I was really excited,” said Ibarra, 41, a mother of two in Mount Vernon, Washington. She enrolled at Skagit Valley just two months after leaving the failed mortgage lender where she worked, and knows there’s a strong demand for accountants and bookkeepers.

A surprising one out of every 14 of the people who attend community colleges — widely regarded as low-tuition options for the less-well-prepared — has already earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. That’s 770,000 students. At some community colleges, the proportion is as high as one in five.

Many bachelor’s degree holders attending community colleges are seeking new careers, especially in health-related disciplines such as nursing, while others are looking to upgrade their skills in computer-related professions or other job-rich fields including biotechnology.

Related: Many community college grads continue to out-earn B.A. holders a decade after graduation

The phenomenon also has exposed a failure by some four-year universities to prepare their graduates for the kinds of jobs available in their surrounding regions, a longtime focus of community colleges, experts and observers say.

One out of every 14 of the people who attend community colleges has already earned a bachelor’s degrees. At some community colleges, the proportion is as high as one in five.

“There’s a lot of disciplines universities aren’t offering,” said Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, an associate professor of education at UCLA and director of its Higher Education Research Institute, who said it’s no surprise that college graduates who want more specialized training or career changes are turning to community colleges. “The universities aren’t keeping up.”

By definition, community colleges are more responsive to the needs of local employers than some universities, said Davis Jenkins, a researcher at the Community College Research Center.

“Certainly the regional universities should be more customer-responsive,” he said.

The fact that they’re not has driven up the proportion of students with bachelor’s degrees at some community colleges. At one, Foothill College in California’s Silicon Valley, the number rose to about 30 percent after the economic downturn before falling to about 19 percent now.

Scholars have conducted little research into this group, whose numbers have surprised even seasoned educators. Richard Rhodes, president of Texas’ Austin Community College, recalled walking into a biology lab with visiting Danish officials and finding that nearly half of the 25 students in the class had bachelor’s degrees, shocking Danish and Texas visitors alike.

Washington State has seen an influx of university graduates at its community colleges, particularly in nursing and computer programs, said David Prince, policy research director for the state community college system. Those students tend to be serious and motivated, he said.

Related: Private colleges target community college grads they once shunned

“It’s not as exploratory for those students, like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m all grown up,’” Prince said. “These students have grown up.”

“There’s a lot of disciplines universities aren’t offering…The universities aren’t keeping up.”

David Ruiz, a 2014 University of Washington graduate, went back to school at Columbia Basin College, a community college, for a cybersecurity degree. At 27, he’s now the student body president and has set up networking groups for career-focused students like himself.

But while the trend would seem likely to be a morale boost for long-disparaged community colleges, it’s actually causing problems for them.

Nearly 60 percent of community college students require remedial work before reaching college-level math classes because of poor preparation they received in high school, according to the Community College Research Center, and time away from the classroom tends to create the same need for returning students.

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

“You think about all the students with bachelor’s degrees and it’s been five, 10, 15 years” since they attended college, said Rhodes, of Austin Community College, where about 3,000 students have bachelor’s degrees. “They’re going to have to do developmental math.”

For schools that already receive far less funding per student than other colleges and universities, the idea of spending money to support students who already have college degrees can be exasperating.

“If it detracts from their ability to serve students without credentials, I think colleges might be reluctant to do it,” said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges. While institutions may not go so far as to turn away those students, Phillippe said, some might eventually choose to charge them higher tuition.

California already moved to charge more for students in that situation in the 1990s, though it quickly reversed the decision.

Related: How a state where community colleges have been an afterthought is turning that around

Geography plays a major role in how many college graduates attend community colleges. Some areas of the country have severe nursing shortages, for example, which drives interest among bachelor’s degree holders in local community colleges’ nursing programs.

But that’s not the only reason job-seekers with bachelor’s degrees end up at community colleges.

At California’s Foothill College, employed workers from nearby tech companies have flocked to the community college for advanced training in geographic information systems, said Kurt Hueg, Foothill’s vice president of instruction. The school has embraced its role helping Silicon Valley, he said, but it’s difficult letting educated workers know about opportunities at community colleges.

“Marketing is a big part of our function here,” Hueg said. “As much as people think they know about us here, they don’t really know us.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *