"The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges" comes when the colleges are seeing swelling enrollment and increasing demands on their services. Their student bodies now include displaced workers, remedial students, non-English speakers, and students seeking more affordable higher education.
Also, community colleges feature prominently in the Obama administration's pledge to substantially increase the number of the nation's college graduates by 2020.
"Given the central role that community colleges play in the nation's plans to regain its position as the number-one country in the world when it comes to college-educated adults, and given the increasing fiscal difficulties facing individual states and the nation as a whole, it is clear that 'business as usual' is far too expensive," the report states.
The report by the nonpartisan social-issue and behavioral-science research group calls for improved measures to try to ensure that students who enter certificate and associate-degree programs actually graduate.
Jerry Parker, president of Delaware County Community College, was not shocked by the findings and said he has been working to address the root causes.
"We've been living with this for years. This is not a new reality for us," Parker said. "What they're doing is putting dollars to it."
Christopher Mullin, an official with the American Association of Community Colleges, said the colleges serve multiple missions and are committed to seeing more students graduate.
He disagreed with the study's cost estimates and said many dropouts are actually "stop-outs" who reenroll.
Mark Schneider, AIR vice president, countered with other data that indicate a poor graduation prognosis for students who leave.
Locally and nationally, community colleges have been exploring ways to retain their diverse student populations so they meet their education needs and goals, including the nationwide Achieving the Dream project, a collaborative effort by many colleges with foundation funding.
"We've always been about open access," said Jacob Farbman, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.
While numbers vary from campus to campus, New Jersey's two-year colleges average about 70 percent of their students requiring some remedial or developmental courses. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges says it does not keep such statistics, but some campuses report similar numbers. In some parts of the country, they are higher still.
For the last two years, county colleges in New Jersey have taken part in the "Big Idea Project" aimed at finding solutions to problems such as the huge need for remediation and the low retention that often goes with spending so much time and funding on noncredit courses.
Often community college students have time-consuming jobs, which can cut into their studies, as may other issues.
"The issue of remediation in college is a serious one," said Raymond Yannuzzi, president of Camden County College.
His school is one of the New Jersey county colleges working with local schools to give high school students their placement exams before they enter college so they can identify academic weak spots early.
Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ritagiordano.