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2016 February 5 - 01:34 pm

A Leaky Pipeline

Study Finds Most Transfers Never Earn Bachelor’s Degree

Every year, some 1.7 million students enroll in a community college, with about 80 percent having the goal of one day walking across the stage in cap and gown, a bachelor’s degree and a ticket to the middle class in hand.

But for the vast majority of students, this dream remains only a dream. Just 14 percent of students who start their higher education careers at a community college transfer to a four-year university and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Even among the community college students who manage to successfully transfer to a fouryear school, just 42 percent completed a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Those sobering statistics are among a trove of data contained in a new report compiled and released by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University; the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program; and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The 56-page report makes a strong case that the community-college-to-university pipeline is badly leaking, with only a tiny trickle of community college transfer making to the pool of bachelor’s-degree holders.

“Too many students are failed by the current system of transfer between community colleges and universities,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at CCRC and one of the authors of the report.

But the news is not uniformly bad.


Among the report’s most significant findings are huge variations in the effectiveness of the community colleges and four-year colleges in helping students transfer and complete bachelor’s degrees, suggesting there is ample opportunity for improvement.

“We saw a huge variation among the colleges we studied,” Jenkins said. “There are colleges that are serving disadvantaged students that are doing very well. What this tells us is that outcomes are not determined by the students that you serve.”

Said Douglas Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center: “These data indicate that the practices of the colleges — their programs for transfer students and collaboration between two and fouryear destination colleges — can make a big difference in whether transfer students are successful. This makes it clear how important it is for two- and four-year institutions to work together to fix the transfer problem.”

Jenkins agreed that two-year colleges alone can’t improve the success rates of transfer students. Four-year colleges must be a critical part of the equation.

“People want community colleges to solve this problem,” he said. “In reality, it has to be both two-year and four-year institutions.”

At some less selective four-year colleges, up to 40 percent of enrollment is made up of transfer students, either from community colleges of other four-year institutions. Yet many of those colleges focus on first-time freshmen when designing and implementing student support systems, Jenkins said.

“We need some myth-busting,” Jenkins said. “The four-year colleges need to use data and figure out how transfers are doing.”

The report, which examined 720,000 degree-seeking students who started college in 2007, identifies which states are doing the best in helping community college transfers earn bachelor’s degrees, hopefully allowing the sharing of best practices and successful strategies.

“This report enables us, for the first time, to see in which states colleges are supporting students in this journey so we can figure out what works and enable students everywhere to be successful,” Jenkins said.

The report proposes a common set of metrics for measuring the effectiveness of two- and four-year institutions in enabling degree-seeking students who start at a community college to transfer to four-year institutions and earn bachelor’s degrees. The metrics track students through their community college career and beyond. They address what researchers consider to be a dearth of data about the effectiveness of two- and four-year institutions in enabling students who start at community colleges to transfer and earn four-year degrees.

The metrics include three community college measures: transfer-out rate, transfer-withaward rate and transfer-out bachelor’s degree completion rate; one measure for four-year institutions: transfer-in bachelor’s completion rate; and an overall metric measuring the overall rate at which students who start at a community college in a given state go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from a four- year institution.

Solving the transfer problem is an economic imperative in a time of growing diversity, the report suggests. The report found in most states, lower-income students, who are more likely to start at community colleges, do worse on almost all transfer measurements than their higher-income peers.


“Transfer challenges disproportionately impact students who are already at a disadvantage,” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

“Transferring and succeeding is probably the greatest inefficiency in higher education today,” Wyner said. “There are millions of students who want a bachelor’s degree who will never get one.

The loss in human capital is astronomical. The loss to our competitiveness is substantial.”

“We know that low-income students are more likely to start at a community college. If higher education is to truly be an engine of economic mobility, then we have to solve this problem.”

The report includes some takeaways for administrators and policymakers to consider. They include:

• Institutional practices — not just institutional characteristics — matter. Institutional performance varied widely on all measures. Some colleges had greater success with transfer students than did others with similar institutional or student characteristics, including those that might pose a barrier to student success, such as location in a rural area.

• Among four-year institutions, transfer students had better outcomes at public institutions, very selective institutions, and institutions with more affluent students. The type of four-year institution that students transferred to was more important than the type of community college they transferred from.

• Outcomes at both two- and four-year institutions varied widely by state. Whether due to specific policies or the history and culture of transfer, there were wide differences in outcomes by state. The connection between earning a community college credential before transferring and the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree is not clear in most states. While prior research indicates that earning an associate degree or certificate before transferring leads to better a bachelor’s degree completion rates, the link is not apparent in most states.

The report is the first phase in a major initiative to tackle low transfer rates and to provide colleges with the tools they need to improve. Building on this research, CCRC and the Aspen Institute will develop a “playbook” for creating effective transfer partnerships between community colleges and universities. It is scheduled to be released this spring.

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