Community college dropouts receive some $1 billion annually in government funding. According to a recent paper by Mark Schneider at the American Institutes for Research:

Nearly $4 billion was spent by federal, state, and local governments over five years on full-time community college students who dropped out after their first year without completing their certificate or degree programs…. About a fifth of full-time students who enroll at a community college do not return for a second year.

For the 2008/2009 academic year, the most recent year for which data are available, nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money was spent on first-year, full-time students who dropped out, about 35 percent more than five years earlier.

Observes have a tendency to call this sort of funding waste. “Students who drop out of community college before their second year have cost taxpayers nearly $1-billion annually, writes Lacey Johnson at the Chronicle of Higher Education in response to the research. “A new report says community colleges waste billions of dollars in taxpayer money by doing a poor job of retaining and graduating their students,” says Liz Goodwin at The Lookout.

This characterization is misleading; taking a course is valuable even if someone doesn’t end up earning a degree. People take classes to learn. The diploma is merely the symbol of that learning.

That being said, it’s a number worth noting. If $1 billion in total spending goes to students who don’t ever end up earning degrees, that does help demonstrate that the implications of failure to complete community college are pretty serious across the country.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer