A thorough look at transfer students

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Only one-third (33%) of students who start at a community college eventually transfer to a four-year institution, and just under half (48%) of those students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a new study. The figures are even lower for students who are low-income, older, Black and Hispanic.

Two reports by the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center examine various aspects of transfer students and the process, supporting existing research on two-year college students’ low transfer and baccalaureate-attainment rates, but also revealing new aspects, such as transfer rates and outcomes for student subgroups.

Overall, 16% of community college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, up slightly from 14% in 2016, the study says. Only 11% of low-income community college starters earn a baccalaureate in six years, and only 9% of Black students and 6% of older students do so.

Pockets of higher success

The study supports previous research that shows that students who complete a credential before transferring have a higher rate of success at four-year institutions. Transfer students who complete a “pre-transfer community college award,” such as an associate degree, are 60% more likely to graduate than students who transferred without an award, it says.

However, the study notes that some two-year colleges have transfer students of color that have higher than average rates. More than one-quarter (27%) of community colleges produce above-national-average bachelor’s completion rates for all students and for Hispanic students, and 15% do the same for Black students.

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The new research backs other reports that community college transfers are a major source of enrollment and diversity for four-year institutions. One in five entering students at public four-years is a community college transfer. It’s even higher in California (one in four) and Florida (one in three).

But the study cautions about transfers to for-profit and mainly online institutions. Only about 23% to 25% of transfer students at private for-profits and predominantly online institutions finish a baccalaureate within four years of transferring. In comparison, 57% of community college transfers to public four-years and 44% of students to non-profit four-years attain a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring. Black community college students transfers are twice as likely as other students to enroll at for-profits or predominantly online institutions, it says.

The study also provides breakdowns by states. North Carolina saw the largest increase in students transferring from community colleges since 2007 (24% to 31%) and in degree completion (6% to 15%). West Virginia, New Mexico and South Dakota also saw double-digit increases.

Areas of focus

The three organizations pulled together recommendations to increase the number of transfer students and their success rates in attaining a four-year degree. They include:

  • Expand dual-enrollment opportunities and practices to increase transfer outcomes for all students, including underserved groups, given the report’s finding of a strong positive correlation between dual-enrollment participation and transfer/bachelor’s attainment.
  • Heighten focus on timely bachelor’s completion after transferring from community college to reduce cost and accelerate entry into a job after graduating.
  • Promote associate-degree completion prior to transfer, consistent with the strong correlation, consistent with the report’s finding of a strong positive correlation with bachelor’s degree-attainment rates.
  • Encourage and support more transfers to selective four-year institutions, and discourage transfer to for-profit institutions and primarily online institutions where bachelor’s-attainment rates after transfer are lowest.

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