Community colleges are controversial. They often are praised for offering affordable and accessible post-secondary education, but also criticized for steering disadvantaged youth away from attending four-year institutions.

More than 40 percent of U.S. undergraduate students attend community colleges and, of those, more than 80 percent say they want to earn bachelor’s degrees. But only about 12 percent complete their degrees within six years. Given these statistics, critics suggest that community college attendance may play an important role in the degree to which American higher education perpetuates social inequality.

Accurately characterizing effects of community college attendance depends on clearly understanding the extent to which they may simultaneously advantage some students while disadvantaging others.

Jennie Brand, a UCLA associate professor of sociology and the associate director of the California Center for Population Research, has co-authored a new study, “The Community College Effect Revisited.” Writing with Fabian Pfeffer, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she refutes current rhetoric about the drawbacks of attending a community college.

The study was published this month in Sociological Science, an online peer-reviewed journal. Using survey and administrative data on students’ postsecondary education after their graduation from Chicago Public Schools — the nation’s fourth largest school district — the researchers assessed the effects of attending community college on their completion of a bachelor’s degree.

They found that enrolling at a community college penalizes more advantaged students, who would otherwise have attended selective four-year colleges. But that penalty accrues only to a small subpopulation of students. For disadvantaged students, who represent the majority of community college-goers, enrolling at a community college has a modest positive effect on their likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree. Many of them would, in the absence of attending a community college, not have attended any college, the researchers say.

“By attending to the probable alternative paths community college students would have followed in the absence of community college attendance, we are better positioned to interpret the outcomes associated with community college attendance,” Brand said.

The authors say they hope the findings will move scholars, practitioners and policymakers toward understanding what attending community college can mean to specific groups of students and on strengthening community colleges so that they can help all students achieve their goals.

“Many policy and school district initiatives are focusing on getting high school graduates into four-year degree programs instead of community colleges,” Brand said. “Our data show that there is no penalty for attending community colleges for the vast majority of students who attend them.”

“The anti-community college stigma is overblown,” Goldrick-Rab said. “It could do real harm to students who find community college to be a very good, low-cost option.”