Teachers College, Columbia University

Earning an Associate Degree Before Transfer Boosts Students’ Likelihood of Earning Four-Year Degree

NEW YORK, NY (April 22, 2014) – Community college students who transfer to four-year colleges with an associate degree are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than similar students who transfer without one, a new study has found.

Nationally, nearly two thirds of community college students who transfer to four-year colleges do so without first earning an associate degree. And while over 80 percent of all entering community colleges indicate that they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 15 percent end up doing so within six years.

The study, from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, compared outcomes for first-time-in-college students who enrolled in a state community college system between 2002 and 2005 and earned between 50 and 90 credits before transferring to a four-year college. (Sixty credits are the average required for an associate degree.)

After matching individual students with 50+ community college credits and similar background characteristics, the analysis found that students who transferred with an associate degree had a distinct advantage: They were 49 percent more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within four years and 22 percent more likely to earn one within six years.

The findings also indicate that different kinds of associate degrees have disparate impacts on bachelor’s degree completion. Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees, both of which are transfer-oriented degrees, significantly increased students’ likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree. Students who earned an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree—a two-year degree designed for direct entry into the workforce—were less likely than students with 50+ credits but no degree to complete a bachelor’s after transfer.

The students under study attended college in a state with an articulation agreement that guarantees full “credit capture” for students who transfer to public four-years with an associate degree. The authors hypothesize that community college students who transfer without an AA or AS degree may have difficulty transferring all their credits, which can delay--or even completely derail--bachelor’s degree completion.

This possibility is supported by findings from a recent CUNY study, which found that 42 percent of transfer students lost at least 10 percent—and sometimes all—of their accumulated community college credits, and that students who were able to transfer 90 percent or more of their credits were two and half times as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree as students who transferred less than half their credits.

The apparent disadvantage accruing to students transferring with an AAS degree may also be attributable to credit loss: The state’s articulation agreement does not guarantee credit capture for AAS degree holders.

The findings provide tantalizing evidence that encouraging students to earn an associate degree before they transfer, coupled with state policies that guarantee credit transfer for associate degree holders, could significantly increase national rates of bachelor's degree completion.