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Community colleges perform a wide variety of functions, including preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. Recent research has pointed out that those who begin their postsecondary education at a community college are less likely to attain a baccalaureate than those who start on a four-year campus. [i] However, focusing on this phenomenon obscures more than it reveals. A few reasons why follow.
- Student characteristics that contribute to baccalaureate attainment are less prevalent among students who start at community colleges.
The characteristics associated with baccalaureate attainment are less common among students who attend community colleges than those who initially enroll in a four-year institution. These factors include having a strong high school academic record, higher family income, parents who attended college, entry to college right after high school, full-time college attendance, and continuous enrollment. [ii] In a word, students enrolling at two- and four-year colleges do not begin at the same "starting line."
Nevertheless, individuals who start at the community college with the intent to earn a baccalaureate have been found to engage in one to two more semesters of schooling than those who enrolled at four-year colleges, [iii] a benefit that has economic rewards in terms of increased earnings. [iv]
- Four-year institutions that admit greater numbers of community college students have relatively high attrition rates, placing transfers-in in relatively less congenial learning environments than those generally found at four-year colleges.
Four-year institutions with high levels of transfers-in of former community college students are inclined to have high attrition rates, fewer financial resources, less on-campus housing, lower tuition and fees (associated with lower persistence), and a larger number of two-year institutions in the state in which the four-year institution is located. [v] While the presence of a high attrition rate at four-year institutions signals an increase in capacity for students who are eligible to transfer, it also signals a decrease in factors that will help those who transfer attain a baccalaureate. This can skew comparisons between the academic experiences of those who initially enroll in four-year colleges and those who start at community colleges.
- Many four-year colleges unfairly deny community college credits.
Another hurdle to baccalaureate completion for community college starters is a factor beyond their control: the number of credits accepted by the receiving institution. Research shows that for those students who had all of their courses transfer to a four-year institution, 82% completed a baccalaureate within six years of starting postsecondary education. [vi] This rate is reduced by nearly half—to 42%—when only some credits are accepted. A national study found that for students who completed 10 credit hours at a community college and 10 credits at a four-year institution, the baccalaureate completion rate was 62.3%. [vii]
- Despite significant obstacles, community college students who transfer to four-year colleges attain the B.A. at the same rate as native four-year college students.
Once accepted by four-year institutions, community college students are generally successful. A study comparing native and transfer students at a southern four-year institution found no "significant GPA differences between cumulative upper division GPAs of transfer and native students." [viii] In a study of an accounting class at a Texas public university, transfer students performed better in the class than "native" students. [ix] Also on this campus, community college transfer students had essentially the same high school grade point averages as did the "native" students.
America's system of higher education needs to produce more baccalaureates, as well as more associate degrees. Community colleges have a responsibility to ensure that students committed to attaining a B.A. are prepared to do so. But this cannot be achieved without enthusiastic participation by four-year institutions.
Contact: Christopher Mullin, 202-728-0200, ext. 258, or email@example.com.
[i] William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
[ii] Characteristics provided in a review of the literature as expressed in Juan Carlos Calcagno, Thomas Bailey, Davis Jenkins, Gregory Keinzl, and Timothy Leinbach, "Community College Student Success: What Institutional Characteristics Make a Difference" Economics of Education Review 27 (2008): 632-645.
[iii] Duane E. Leigh and A.M. Gill, "Do Community Colleges Really Divert Students from Earning a Bachelor's Degree?" Economics of Education Review 22 (2003): 23-30.
[iv] For a discussion see, Thomas J. Kane and Cecilia Elena Rouse, "The Community College: Educating Students at the Margin Between College and Work" Journal of Economic Perspectives 13, No. 1(1999): 63-84.
[v] John J. Cheslock, "Differences Between Public and Private Institutions of Higher Education in the Enrollment of Transfer Students," Economics of Education Review 25 (2005): 263-274.
[vi] Will Doyle, "Community College Transfers and College Graduation: Whose Choices Matter Most?" Change (May/June 2006).
[vii] Clifford Adelman, Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education: 1972-2000 (Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, 2004): 47.
[viii] Phillip E. Carlan and Ferris R. Byxbe, "Community Colleges Under the Microscope: An Analysis of Performance Predictors for Native and Transfer Students," Community College Review 28, No. 2 (2000): 33.
[ix] Lucille Montondon and Elaine E. Eikner, Comparison of Community College Transfer Students and Native Students in an Upper Level Accounting Course. Community College Review 25, No. 3 (1997): 21-38.