States and institutions must address the real issues facing students as they pursue a college degree. The focus should be on the loss of transfer credits and college completion, which would help more students graduate on time with less debt.
While proposals for free-tuition community college dominate headlines, the fact is that for many students community college is already free. The main problem is that students do not have a clear path through these institutions that will allow them to fully transfer their credits and apply them to a bachelor’s degree at a public four-year institution.
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Around 80 percent of community college students who transfer do not complete a degree before transferring to a four-year school. Many of these students leave early and pay between three times up to 10 times more in tuition to take classes they couldn’t get at their community college because these courses were not offered or wouldn’t transfer, according to studies.
The last affordable route
With the costs of higher education soaring and states facing huge budget deficits, community colleges are the last affordable route to a bachelor’s degree for many students. This is especially true for low-income, minority and first-generation college students who are more likely to begin their undergraduate studies at a community college. But the national conversation about college access, affordability, graduation rates and the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt seems to miss the transfer credit issue.
While the number of students enrolled in college has been declining, the percentage of students transferring has been increasing. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 38 percent of all college students will transfer at least once before completing a bachelor’s degree. The vast majority of students will transfer either into or out of a community college.
Inefficient transfer credit systems cause many community college students to transfer before completing their associate degree. For those who started at a community college, only 5.6 percent of students transferred after earning an associate degree at their starting institution.
And yet community college transfer students represent 49 percent of all students who complete bachelor’s degrees in the United States. The largest barrier to their success is losing credits when transferring.
My previous studies on transfer students, as well as data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, show that students who attend community colleges and can successfully transfer those credits to four-year public institutions have some of the highest graduation rates at the four-year colleges.
Mandating statewide transfer agreements
States can make college as free as they want, but if they don’t have a system in place to help students get through these institutions and graduate on time with a college degree that allows them to go directly into a good job, or to fully transfer the credits to a bachelor’s degree, they are doing more harm than good.
My research, as well as data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), suggests that the average community college student who successfully transfers to a public four-year institution loses an average of 20 percent of their credits. This loss of credits is equivalent to almost an entire semester of credits and would delay the student’s time to graduate.
The solution to this problem would be for the federal government and states to enact legislation mandating statewide transfer and articulation agreements between the community college system and all public four-year institutions in the state. This would require faculty and staff of community colleges, regional state universities and the flagship university to establish transfer pathways to ensure the seamless transfer of community college credits.
This process would ensure that community college students are not paying twice to retake similar classes and can graduate on time with less debt. Many states have laws that govern transfer credits, but very few states actually fully enforce those laws to ensure students can apply those college-level credits to their bachelor’s degree.
We spend a lot of time worrying about the outside barriers that students face, but we don’t do enough to remove the state and institutional barriers that keep students from graduating on time or graduating at all. A statewide transfer credit system would save the students, states, and the federal government billions of dollars each year and make higher education more affordable and accessible for all students, especially our low income, minority, and first-generation college students who are more likely to begin their undergraduate studies at a community college.