Community colleges are known for their wide-open doors, providing educational opportunity for students who have not been well served by K-12 schools and a second chance for people whose college education was derailed. But for their many students who plan to transfer to a four-year college, there too often is no clear path through the thicket of choices at the community college and across the divide to the four-year school. Though as many as 80 percent of new community college students want to get a bachelor’s degree, only about 14 percent transfer and graduate within six years.
But it turns out that where you live can make a big difference.
New research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC), in collaboration with the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, breaks down transfer outcomes by state and reveals wide gaps in the rates at which students transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. In the best-performing states—Wyoming, Montana, and Maryland—nearly 20 percent of community college students who began in fall 2007 earned a bachelor’s within six years. But in several states, bachelor’s completion rates were in the single digits. And while in some states transfer and bachelor’s completion rates of lower income and higher income students were similar, lower income students generally fared worse than their higher income peers.
Despite the mixed picture, there is good news in the numbers. The student demographics at community colleges appear to matter less than how the colleges serve students aiming to transfer. Regardless of whether they are rural or urban, or serving mostly lower or higher income students, community colleges can boost the transfer success of their students by looking to better performing schools to inform their practices.
As part of a larger project CCRC is conducting with the Aspen Institute and Public Agenda to build momentum to improve transfer, the new research on transfer student outcomes will be followed by the release of a playbook for reform based on research into successful partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions.
At many colleges, students find the existing transfer process confusing and are left to figure it out largely on their own. As a result, too many students waste time and money on courses that don’t transfer to a four-year college or that don’t apply to their intended major. Many drop out in frustration or scale back their goals.
Improving transfer is a central focus of the wider community college reform movement. The changes colleges are making as part of these reforms involve creating clearer pathways for students into and through community college and on to bachelor’s degrees and careers—strategies supported by CCRC’s research. Community colleges are the first stop for many low-income students and students of color, so helping more students transfer and graduate will not only make a difference in their lives but also help meet national goals for expanding college achievement and upward mobility.
One obstacle to tackling the problem of low transfer and bachelor’s completion rates has been the lack of standardized measurements that would allow states and colleges to benchmark their performance. Using a comprehensive national dataset from the National Student Clearinghouse, the current study introduces a set of metrics for two- and four-year colleges that allows for the comparison of transfer outcomes across institutions and states. These include three community college measures—transfer-out rate, transfer-with-award rate, and transfer-out bachelor’s completion rate—and one measure for four-year institutions—transfer-in bachelor’s completion rate. They also include a fifth measure: the overall rate at which the cohort of students who start at a community college in a given state go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. This information will help both two- and four-year colleges benchmark their performance, identify areas for improvement, and gauge the effectiveness of reforms.
The study looked at the outcomes of more than 700,000 degree-seeking students who entered higher education through a community college in fall 2007, providing evidence about where students are getting stuck in particular states. Some states, such as Oklahoma, had above-average rates of transfer out of community colleges but low transfer-student graduation rates at four-year schools. In others, such as Washington, community colleges transferred out relatively few students, but relatively high numbers of those who transferred earned bachelor’s degrees. In the states where more community college entrants earned bachelor’s degrees, both rates tended to be high.
Unlike with two-year colleges, the characteristics of the four-year colleges that students transferred into made a substantial difference in student outcomes. Transfer students tended to do better at public four-year colleges than at private colleges. And for-profit four-year colleges, in particular, had a poor record in helping transfer students graduate: Only 8 percent earned a bachelor’s within six years of starting college. Very selective colleges and colleges serving higher income students also did significantly better than less selective colleges and those serving lower income students, raising questions about whether more selective institutions could increase transfer student enrollment. Still, outcomes varied substantially among four-year institutions even within the same broad types, leaving plenty of room for four-year colleges to improve transfer students’ graduation rates by reforming transfer student supports and relationships with community colleges.
Overall, lower income students transferred less often, and lower income transfer students were 8 percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than higher income transfer students. But a few states had smaller gaps between lower and higher income students while maintaining relatively high overall graduation rates.
The metrics introduced in the study will allow institutions and states to benchmark their progress and identify where improvements need to be made. Armed with information on how their transfer outcomes stack up, along with lessons from the colleges and universities that have strong transfer student completion rates, community colleges working closely with their four-year partners can begin the hard work of removing barriers and strengthening paths for students to transfer and realize their goals for earning a college degree.
Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #TacklingTransfer.