For better transfer student outcomes, Pa. needs to transfer more money

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Pennsylvania recently approved funds for some of its four-year universities after a months-long standoff in state government. Funds include $600 million for Lincoln, Temple, Pitt, Penn State and Pennsylvania College of Technology while avoiding a key group of institutions: community colleges.

Pennsylvania community colleges were set to receive a 2% increase in appropriations as part of the budget that was approved back in August. However, funds have yet to be distributed to the state’s 15 community colleges in the absence of a fiscal code to authorize payments, forcing these institutions to borrow or dip into financial reserves to avoid spending cuts.

To be clear, Pennsylvania’s public universities need more funding to carry out their missions. But public community colleges need more equitable funding if they are to fulfill their multipronged missions of providing workforce training, opportunities for lifelong learning, and affordable pathways to bachelor’s degrees.

Earlier in November, the U.S. Education Department (ED) released public transfer community college student outcomes. This is the first time ED has publicly reported this kind of data, and it highlights how well states, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities support transfer students, or students who first enroll in higher education at a community college but intend to complete a bachelor’s degree. The data highlight significant opportunities for improvement among Pennsylvania’s community colleges and how increased funding for these schools might support such efforts.

Successes and opportunities

One in five undergraduate students enrolled in public higher education in Pennsylvania attends a community college. While the vast majority of these students intend to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree, very few do. ED data show that only about one in three community college students ever transfer to a four-year college. Bucks County Community College had the highest transfer rate at 44%, while Pennsylvania College of Technology (which awards both associate and bachelor’s degrees) had the lowest rate among Pennsylvania two-year colleges at 18%. The Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) ranks 12 out of 15 with a transfer rate of 26%, while fewer than 20% complete their associate degree.

The publicly released data also show how well four-year colleges and universities support community college transfer students. For instance, more than 60% of community college students who transferred to Temple and Thomas Jefferson universities went on to earn their bachelor’s degree. Temple led the way among Pennsylvania private and public universities in terms of the number of community college students who transferred within four years of initial entry.

Still, much work remains to be done in supporting community college students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree. For instance, just 5% of students who first enrolled at CCP completed a bachelor’s degree at Temple, which is also located in Philadelphia.

Low transfer and degree completion rates among Pennsylvania community college students are indicative of a broader issue in the state’s system of higher education finance. Pennsylvania ranks 21st out of 50 states in higher education spending per full-time equivalent student, spending $4,000 less per student than the average state.

On top of this, disparities persist in community and four-year college funding. Pennsylvania community colleges spend less than 8% of what its four-year colleges spend annually. Local appropriations account for a third of community college funding, but it’s not nearly enough to offset disparities in state appropriations and total revenues for four-year colleges. These disparities in revenue limit what community colleges can spend money on and leave these institutions with the uphill task of supporting a more disadvantaged student population with fewer resources.

Needed financial support

Pennsylvania would be wise to consider increasing state appropriations for its community colleges and reducing discrepancies in per student spending between community and four-year colleges. With more resources, community colleges can focus on supporting students through transfer and degree completion. They can work with university partners to develop articulation agreements that ensure credits earned at community colleges will count toward a bachelor’s degree; they can bolster students’ financial aid to ensure that students aren’t caught in a debt trap; and they can establish clearer bachelor’s degree pathways between community and four-year college partnerships.

Higher community college transfer and degree completion rates lead to higher future earnings for workers. It also translates into more healthcare workers, teachers and informed citizenship, each of which the state could benefit from. Fully funding these colleges would be a smart investment by the state. If Pennsylvania wants more community college students to transfer and earn degrees, it’s going to need to transfer more money to these institutions. Releasing funds to these community colleges would be a good start.

About the Author

Daniel Sparks
Daniel Sparks is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.