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Community Colleges as Pathways to Baccalaureate Attainment: Benefits, Obstacles, and Policy Implications

The EvoLLLution | Community Colleges as Pathways to Baccalaureate Attainment: Benefits, Obstacles, and Policy Implications
Improved and increased numbers of transfer agreements between two-year and four-year institutions, combined with better advising and support mechanisms on both sides of the transfer pathway, would improve baccalaureate completion rates for students who use community colleges as a pathway to four-year degrees.

Each year, community colleges provide a key point of access to postsecondary education for millions of low-income and ethnic minority students. Over half of low-income students, approximately half of Hispanic students, and about one third of African American students begin their college careers at a two-year institution. Compared to directly starting in a four-year institution, community colleges have several attractions, including its open-admissions policies, flexible scheduling options, and probably most importantly, the relative bargain of community college costs. In 2014–15, for example, public two-year colleges’ tuition and fees averaged only $3,347, compared with an average in-state rate of $9,139 for public four-year colleges. The up-front savings may be even higher considering that most students live in close geographic proximity to at least one community college, allowing them to avoid an average of $9,804 per year in room and board charges.

Despite these up-front savings, however, the nation’s rate of transfer from two-year to four-year colleges (known as “vertical transfer”) is startlingly low. According to a recent report, while the vast majority of community college entrants—an estimated 81 percent—aspire to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 6 percent manage to do so within five years.

One question that many students and policy makers thus ask is: What are the most significant roadblocks students face in the community college pathway to baccalaureate attainment?

Four Obstacles to the Community College’s Role as a Pathway to Four-Year Degrees

In a recent study published by the Community College Research Center, Shanna Smith Jaggars, Jeffery Fletcher and I used college administrative data to examine how and why two-year college entry may influence baccalaureate aspirants’ academic outcomes. Based on our analyses as well as an extensive review of existing literature, we identified four mechanisms that might explain why baccalaureate aspirants may fare more poorly if they choose to enter a two-year rather than four-year college.

1. The “Diversionary” Impact of Community College Attendance

This hypothesis suggests that the cultures, requirements and resources in community colleges might make students slow down their academic progress, or even recalibrate their educational expectations to aim for sub-baccalaureate credentials and degrees, rather than transferring to a four-year institution and continuing the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. For example, community colleges have fewer resources for academic and non-academic student supports than do four-year public institutions, which could lead to poorer grades and less term-to-term persistence for their students. Similarly, few community colleges offer the option of on-campus residence, making it more difficult for community college students to engage in extracurricular activities and otherwise socially integrate into campus life, which is thought to have a negative impact on persistence. In addition, aspiring baccalaureate students who choose to enter the two-year sector seem to encounter different requirements and supports in terms of remediation, given that the high rate of math remediation for community college students is out of proportion to the small difference in academic preparation between community college and four-year students. Recent studies suggest that remediation is unnecessary for many students who receive it, and that it tends to divert students from college-level coursework, resulting in fewer college-level credits earned. Accordingly, students with marginal levels of math preparedness may accrue more college-level credits if they enter a four-year rather than a two-year college, simply by virtue of skipping math remediation. Similarly, two- and four-year entrants could encounter different policies or incentives in terms of carrying a full-credit load (30 credits per year), such as the college’s financial aid packaging, advising practices, or general cultural expectation of full-time attendance. If indeed four-year colleges’ cultural or policy environment tends to encourage a heavier credit load, then community college students could quickly begin to lag behind their four-year peers in terms of college credit accrual.

Indeed, in our study using the administrative records from one state, while similar two-year and four-year college entrants started with equivalent credit loads during their first year in college, the former dropped to lower credit loads in the second year. In addition, a divergence in attempted college-level credits began as early as the first term of enrollment, suggesting that community college students were also referred to more remedial credits than their similar four-year peers.

2. The Logistic Hurdles Against Transfer

A second potential mechanism has been surfaced by a variety of qualitative studies, which document that community college students find the logistical operation of selecting and transferring to a four-year school to be frustrating and bewildering. Specifically, students often had difficulty finding useful and accurate information about transfer options for a given field of study, in part because of breakdowns in communication between area four-year schools and the community college. Our analyses echo a wide variety of recent work arguing that community college transfer pathways are insufficiently structured and supported. Among students who did transfer, the idiosyncratic patterns and timing of transfer seem to suggest that there is no well trodden, highly structured pathway for transfer students to follow. Instead, students seem to be left to discover their own idiosyncratic path to a four-year institution. Due to the logistical work required to navigate the vertical transfer process, it is unsurprising that many academically successful community college students opt not to transfer.

3. Loss of Credits Due to Transfer

Among students who do eventually enroll at a four-year school, one key barrier to success may be a loss of credits at the time of transfer. For example, one recent study using the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) data found that, for 14 percent of vertical transfer students, the four-year institution accepted almost none of their community college credits, while for only 58 percent of students did the four-year college accept almost all of their credits. In addition, although many states have policies requiring public four-year colleges to accept an agreed-upon set of credits from the state’s community colleges, most agreements do not guarantee that these credits would apply to the student’s intended major. As a result, students may need to take additional courses in the four-year institution, which would result in excess credits. Due to either credit loss or excess credit requirements, vertical transfer students may need more time to complete their bachelor’s degree than native four-year students. Indeed, results from our analysis indicate that among students who attained a bachelor’s degree, vertical transfers earned 16 more credits than should be necessary for a traditional four-year degree, suggesting either that they lost a considerable amount of credits at the point of transfer or that they were required to earn additional major-specific credits. It is not surprising, then, that two-year entrants spent 2 more semesters on average in college than their native four-year counterparts.

4. Post-Transfer Shock

The last mechanism is that vertical transfer students can suffer from post-transfer shock—that is, because the cultural or academic expectations of their new environment are quite different from those of the community college, vertical transfer students may perform poorly or drop out after they arrive at the receiving institution. And indeed, findings from our study suggest that community college students’ grade point averages (GPAs) decline upon entry into a four-year college by approximately 0.3 points on the 4.0 scale (e.g. from B- to C+), although the dip appears to be temporary and rebounds after the first term following transfer, suggesting that the GPA dip may be partially due to transfer students’ social and logistical adjustment to the new college environment.

Policy Implications

As states and colleges search for new strategies to increase transfer rates and the success of transfer students, the results from our study as well as a variety of others suggest that the responsibility should not rest solely with community colleges; transfer destinations must also take responsibility for working with community colleges to build strong transfer pathways, and to provide support for their transfer students’ success.

For example, four-year transfer destinations may need to work with their key feeder community colleges to create agreements in which students who earn a transfer-oriented associate degree in a given field are guaranteed junior-level standing in a matching major at the four-year college. Such policies may have a salutary effect on credit loss, given that a handful of studies conducted in public college systems have found that vertical transfer students who earn transfer-oriented associate degrees have higher rates of bachelor’s degree attainment than do similar vocationally oriented associate degree holders or non-degree holders, even after controlling for the number of credits accumulated before transfer.

In addition, transfer destinations may need to orient, advise and provide support services to transfer students in order to facilitate their academic and social integration into the new educational setting.

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