Interpreting Community College Effects in the Presence of Heterogeneity and Complex Counterfactuals

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Interpreting Community College Effects in the Presence of Heterogeneity and Complex Counterfactuals


Jennie E. Brand (BIO)

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Associate Director, California Center for Population Research
University of California, Los Angeles

Fabian T. Pfeffer (BIO)

Faculty Research Fellow, Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan

Sara Goldrick-Rab (BIO)

Associate Professor, Departments of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology
Senior Scholar, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Community colleges are controversial educational institutions, often said to simultaneously expand college opportunities and diminish baccalaureate attainment. This study assesses the seemingly contradictory functions of community colleges by attending to effect heterogeneity (i.e., different effects of community college attendance for different types of students) and alternative counterfactual conditions (i.e., alternative postsecondary pathways for community college students).

Using data on postsecondary outcomes of high school graduates of Chicago Public Schools, the study finds that average effects of community college attendance mask different effects for different students. Enrolling at a community college appears to penalize more-advantaged students who otherwise would have attended four-year colleges; such students represent a relatively small portion of the community college population. However, enrolling at a community college has a modest positive effect on bachelor’s degree completion for disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have attended college; these students represent the majority of community college-goers. The authors conclude that accurately describing the role that community colleges play in social stratification requires analyzing effect heterogeneity and the processes through which heterogeneity arises.


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