Policy Fact Sheet | July 2021

Community College Transfer

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Preparing students to transfer to a university and earn a bachelor’s degree has long been a primary mission of community colleges. Four of every five entering community college students seek to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree—a credential that is increasingly needed to secure a good job with family-sustaining wages. Students may opt for this transfer pathway to a bachelor’s degree because community colleges are generally more affordable and closer to home than four-year colleges.

What the Research Tells Us

Only a small fraction of community college students who intend to transfer make it through to a bachelor’s degree.

  • Of 100 entering, degree-seeking community college students, about 31 will transfer to a four-year institution, and only about 14 will complete a bachelor’s degree.[1]
  • White students are twice as likely to transfer as Black and Latinx students. Similarly, higher-income students are twice as likely to transfer as lower-income students.[2]
For every 100 entering, degree-seeking community college students, only 31 will transfer to a four-year institution and 14 complete a bachelor's degree.

The paths to successfully transfer in a chosen major are unclear, with the result that too many community college students who do transfer lose credits and risk running out of financial aid benefits before earning a degree.

  • Despite the popular conception that transfer students spend two years at a community college plus two years at a four-year college, there is little uniformity in transfer patterns: Only 8% of successful community college transfer students follow the “2+2” sequence. Many students transfer multiple times, change colleges at varying points along their pathway, and complete after six years or longer.[3]
  • Community colleges struggle to help students reach early academic milestones such as passing college-level English or math, completing 24 or more college credits, and earning an associate degree for transfer. Students who meet such milestones are substantially more likely to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree, and this is especially the case for Black and Hispanic students.[4]
  • Information on transfer websites is notoriously difficult to navigate,[5] and articulation agreements with four-year colleges are often complex and hard to interpret.[6]
  • Students are often surprised to discover that their community college credits are not accepted at their four-year transfer institution, or that the credits are accepted but not applied to the bachelor’s degree requirements in their chosen major. Students lose an estimated 43% of their credits when they transfer.[7]
  • Transfer credit loss decreases students’ chances of completing a bachelor’s degree, undercuts the benefits of financial aid, and adds extra time and cost for students who do complete a bachelor’s degree.[8][9]
  • A survey of 90,000 transfer-aspiring community college students found that half reported never utilizing transfer advising.[10]

Transfer students may face unreceptive university policies and cultures, yet perform well academically after transferring.

  • Community college students who transfer to four-year institutions may encounter unsupportive campus policies and norms and faculty/staff misperceptions of community colleges.[11]
  • Four-year colleges sometimes exclude transfer students from institutional aid.[12]
  • Unwelcoming transfer cultures can intersect with challenging campus racial climates, creating further barriers for transfer students of color.[13]
  • Despite these challenges, research shows that transfer students perform as well or better than freshman admits.[14][15]

Community colleges and universities with strong partnerships can improve transfer outcomes.

  • Despite low outcomes nationally, some community college-university partnerships have achieved stronger transfer outcomes.[16][17]
  • Strong community college-university transfer partnerships create major-specific program maps and have regular, reliable processes for updating and improving program maps across institutions.[18]
  • Another important element at the community college is student advising that clearly articulates students’ transfer options and helps them determine, as early as possible, their field of interest, major, and preferred transfer destination.
  • Four-year colleges with stronger transfer outcomes commit dedicated personnel, structures, and resources for transfer students and clearly communicate essential information to prospective transfer students.[19]

Key Considerations for Federal Policy

  • Federal policy should better reflect the highly mobile nature of student enrollment across multiple postsecondary institutions. Federal investments related to community colleges should prioritize incentives for postsecondary institutions and states to improve credit transfer and transfer student outcomes.
  • To provide a fuller view of student outcomes as students transfer across institutions, policymakers should consider measures—such the recently reintroduced College Transparency Act[20]—to lift the ban on a federal student-level data system.


  1. ^ Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P. K., Yuan, X., Nathan, A., & Hwang, Y. (2017/2020 update). Tracking transfer: Measures of effectiveness in helping community college students to complete bachelor’s degrees (Signature Report No. 13). National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  2. ^ Causey, J., Huie, F., Lang, R., Ryu, M., & Shapiro, D. (2020). Completing college 2020: A national view of student completion rates for 2014 entering cohort (Signature Report No. 19). National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  3. ^ Fink, J. (2017, March 8). Visualizing the many routes community college students take to complete a bachelor’s degree. CCRC Mixed Methods Blog.
  4. ^ Lin, Y., Fay, M. P., & Fink, J. (2020). Stratified trajectories: Charting equity gaps in program pathways among community college students. Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
  5. ^ Schudde, L., Bradley, D., & Absher, C. (2018). Ease of access and usefulness of transfer information on community college websites in Texas (CCRC Working Paper No. 102). Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
  6. ^ Taylor, Z. W. (2019). Inarticulate transfer: Do community college students understand articulation agreements? Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 43(1), 65–69.
  7. ^ U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2017). Higher education: Students need more information to help reduce challenges in transferring college credits (GAO-17-574).
  8. ^ Monaghan, D. B., & Attewell, P. (2015). The community college route to the bachelor’s degree. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(1), 70–91.
  9. ^ Xu, D., Jaggars, S. S., Fletcher, J., & Fink, J. (2018). Are community college transfer students “a good bet” for 4-year admissions? Comparing academic and labor-market outcomes between transfer and native 4-year college students. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(4), 478–502.
  10. ^ Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2018). Show me the way: The power of advising in community colleges. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Program in Higher Education Leadership.
  11. ^ Jain, D., Herrera, A., Bernal, S., & Solorzano, D. (2011). Critical race theory and the transfer function: Introducing a transfer receptive culture. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 35(3), 252–266.
  12. ^ Wyner, J., Deane, K., Jenkins, D., & Fink, J. (2016). The transfer playbook: Essential practices for two- and four-year colleges. Aspen Institute and Community College Research Center.
  13. ^ Jain, D., Melendez, S. N. B., & Herrera, A. R. (2020). Power to the transfer: Critical race theory and a transfer receptive culture. Michigan State University Press.
  14. ^ Xu, Jaggars, et al. (2018).
  15. ^ Glynn, J. (2019). Persistence: The success of students who transfer from community colleges to selective four-year institutions. Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
  16. ^ Jenkins, D., & Fink, J. (2016). Tracking transfer: New measures of state and institutional effectiveness in helping community college students attain bachelor’s degrees. Community College Research Center, Aspen Institute, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  17. ^ Xu, D., Ran., F. X., Fink, J., Jenkins, D., & Dundar, A. (2018). Collaboratively clearing the path to a baccalaureate degree: Identifying effective 2- to 4-year college transfer partnerships. Community College Review, 46(3), 231–256.
  18. ^ Wyner et al. (2016).
  19. ^ Wyner et al. (2016).
  20. ^ Office of U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (2021, March 21). Cassidy, Warren, Scott, Whitehouse reintroduce College Transparency Act [Press release].

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John Fink

Senior Research Associate

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