Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Who Are Our Students? Cluster Analysis as a Tool for Understanding Community College Student Populations

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Who Are Our Students? Cluster Analysis as a Tool for Understanding Community College Student Populations

Article excerpt

This study showcases cluster analysis as a useful tool for those who seek to understand the types of students their community colleges serve. Although educational goal, academic program, and demographics are often used as descriptive variables, it is unclear which, if any, of these are the best way to classify community college students. Cluster analyses at two points in time each identified nine distinct clusters in our data. These clusters had a 67% overlap, indicating method validity and consistency over time. The differences between the two years could be due to differences in enrollment over time, but are likely a result of changes in questions asked of the students from year one to year two. The results of this study suggest the utility of cluster analysis as a way for stakeholders to describe and classify their students. Furthermore, once established, cluster membership can be used to predict later success, usage of student services, and other important outcomes. When administrators understand these differences among students, they can better serve all groups of students and identify ways to market to them and address their unique needs.


As with other postsecondary institutions, comprehensive community colleges must develop systematic ways to better understand and serve an increasingly diversified student population. Washtenaw Community College (WCC) serves such a student body, with students coming from various backgrounds and pursuing a wide range of academic goals. A better understanding of this complex student body can help inform program planning, policy, and student services initiatives. For a college to effectively develop and market services to students, it is essential to have a portrait of the student body.

The following two studies utilized cluster analysis to create a profile of our community college students that will ultimately help us better understand the students we serve. The first study was primarily descriptive to lay the foundation for future research; replication in the second study served as a method validation tool. In future studies, we will do more in-depth analyses to investigate which of the "clusters" of students identified are most likely to succeed and how effective student services are at reaching different clusters. This information could be used to help college decision makers identify issues that affect student success, effectively address them through appropriate student services initiatives, and better define the target audiences for services and marketing.

Traditionally, community colleges as a whole serve students of different ages, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds (Schuetz, 2002). Several important trends are apparent in the present literature concerning community college enrollment. First, it is clear that students enroll in community colleges for a variety of reasons, including personal enrichment, career goals, and intent to transfer (Bryant, 2001) . Some students intend to earn a degree at the community college level, while others are non-credit or transfer students. Over time, the ethnic diversity of community college populations has increased (Bryant, 2001), and there are increasing numbers of students who would benefit from remediation (Schuetz, 2002). Community colleges are serving more dually-enrolled high school students and reverse transfer students who have received college degrees from other institutions (Andrews, 2003). The product of these trends is a more diverse community college student body, which needs a wide variety of support and services.

It is crucial for community college educators, administrators, and other stakeholders to understand the student bodies of their colleges. Such an exploration provides stakeholders with an idea of the types of services that are necessary, for whom, and how to design and market them effectively. Previous research has sometimes chosen to focus on one dimension of the student body, and to describe profiles of types of students based on that characteristic. …

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