Community colleges have long served as a launchpad for students pursuing further education at other colleges and universities. The transfer pathway has the potential to provide an affordable route to a bachelor’s degree and beyond for hundreds of thousands of students.

Why We Study Transfer

Transfer is a core part of the community college mission. Transfer matters because of the value of a bachelor’s degree for lifetime earnings and other individual benefits as well as the societal benefits of supporting the information economy and a vibrant, diverse democracy. Community colleges are the entry point to college for almost 40% of undergraduates, including the majority of Hispanic undergraduates and the largest number of lowest income students. Most of these students aspire to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Yet, only 28% of Black adults and 21% of Hispanic adults over the age of 25 in the United States hold a bachelor’s degree, compared with 42% of White adults. Similarly, only 15% of young adults from the lowest income backgrounds complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 59% of their wealthier peers. With large numbers of students of color and low-income students starting their postsecondary education at a community college, the transfer pathway has the potential to close national gaps in bachelor’s attainment.

Despite this potential, research shows that two- and four-year institutions are underperforming on transfer. Institutional barriers to transfer and bachelor’s completion are major contributors to low transfer outcomes that disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color. CCRC’s research on transfer identifies institutional barriers that inhibit transfer student success, and it elevates promising strategies that community college and four-year partners can implement at scale to achieve substantial improvements.

Fast Facts

Of 100 entering degree-seeking community college students, about 32 will transfer to a four-year institution, and only about 16 will complete a bachelor’s degree.
Students who meet early momentum milestones are substantially more likely to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree, and this is especially the case for Black and Hispanic students.
A survey of 90,000 transfer-aspiring community college students found that half never used transfer advising.
Only 8% of community college transfer students who earn a bachelor’s degree follow the 2+2 pattern of two years at the community college and two years at the four-year college. Many transfer multiple times, which increases the time and cost to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Key Terms

Credit transferability

Credits may transfer (i.e., be accepted by the university) but count only toward general education requirements.

Credit applicability

Ideally, community college credits transfer and apply to the requirements for a student’s bachelor’s degree program. If they do not apply, a student might end up with excess credits.

Excess credits

The total number of credits (taken at the two- and four-year institution) above and beyond the number required for the student’s bachelor’s degree program (typically 120 semester credits).

Structured transfer pathways

Community college programs designed to ensure that students will transfer into their intended bachelor’s degree program and that all credits will apply to that major’s requirements.

What We Are Learning From Effective Transfer Partnerships

Mapping pathways from community college to university helps students explore academic and career fields of interest and transfer into a specific bachelor’s major.

Developing individualized transfer plans based on regularly updated institution- and major-specific transfer guides allows students to answer the question, “Will my transfer credits apply to my bachelor’s degree?”

Providing proactive advising and supports from community college entry to bachelor’s completion helps students explore options early on, revise plans as needed, and progress successfully before and after transfer.

Strengthening teaching and supports in students’ early community college coursework and embedding active and experiential learning into every program improves transfer student success.

Building pathways into high school, starting with dual enrollment, allows community college and university partnerships to create a solid foundation for transfer success.

Sharing data allows community colleges and universities to monitor student progress and improve partnership practices. The most useful data is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, income, sending/receiving institution, and student major.

Our Transfer Experts


John Fink

Senior Research Associate and Program Lead


Davis Jenkins

Senior Research Scholar


Susan Bickerstaff

Senior Research Associate


Hana Lahr

Senior Research Associate and Director of Applied Learning

Read More

View all of our publications on transfer.