Noncredit Research Collaborative

How Noncredit Enrollments Distort Community College IPEDS Data: An Eight-state Study


A commonly used metric for measuring college costs, drawn from data in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), is expenditure per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. This article discusses an error in this per FTE calculation when using IPEDS data, especially with regard to community colleges. The problem is that expenditures for noncredit courses are reported to IPEDS but enrollments are not. This exclusion inflates any per FTE student figure calculated from IPEDS, in particular expenditures and revenues. A 2021 IPEDS Technical Review Panel (TRP #62) acknowledged this problem and moved campus institutional research offices a step closer to reporting noncredit enrollment data (RTI International, 2021). This article is the first to provide some numbers on the magnitude of this problem. It covers eight states—California, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Data on noncredit community college enrollments were made available from system offices in all states. In addition, discussions were held at both the system level and the campus level to verify the data and assumptions. Figures provided by states were merged with existing IPEDS data at the campus and state levels, and then were adjusted to account for noncredit enrollments. The results provide evidence that calculations using IPEDS data alone overestimate the resources that community colleges have to spend on each student, although distortions vary greatly between states and among colleges in the same state. The results have important implications for research studies and college benchmarking.

Keywords: community college spending, noncredit enrollments, IPEDS