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Is Transferring to Two-Year Colleges a Good Option for Struggling Four-Year Students?

The EvoLLLution | Is Transferring to Two-Year Colleges a Good Option for Struggling Four-Year Students?
Improving reverse transfer pathways from four-year to two-year institutions would have a significant positive impact on student outcomes.

Many students never finish college. Every 4 in 10 college students graduate from their initial four-year institutions in four years and every 6 in 10 did so within six years.[1] For students that are at risk of dropping out, the completion rate is even lower. In this article, I regard students with first-term grade point average (GPA) below 3.0 as struggling students. While most institutions classify students at risk of dropping out as those with GPAs below 2.0 in the first year, the completion rate drops down to as low as 12 percent for the “murky middle”—those with GPAs between 2.0 and 3.0.[2]

Helping struggling students to finish college is critical since these students are disproportionally of low socioeconomic status and are often struggling financially and socially.

For struggling four-year students who wish to complete a college degree, one option is to transfer from a four-year to two-year (4–2) institution. Nationally, 16 percent of students who initially enroll at a four-year institution transfer to a two-year college. Despite the prevalence of 4-2 transfer, we know very little about the academic and labor market outcomes of the 4-2 transfer path.

Why do Four-Year Students Transfer to Two-Year College?

As mentioned above, struggling students at four-year colleges may want to transfer because they think they have a lower likelihood of success at their original institution. Additionally, struggling students at four-year colleges have compelling financial reasons to transfer to two-year colleges. The direct cost of a two-year college is substantially cheaper than that of a four-year college. For the 2015–16 school year, public four-year students paid $4,000 on average after deducting financial aid and tax credits, and many spent an additional $10,140 in room and board. In contrast, two-year students had an average net tuition/fee of $0 due to Pell Grants, and many of them lived at home.[3] Furthermore, two-year institutions offer credentials at least two years more quickly, at more convenient locations, and with more flexible schedules than four-year colleges. The opportunity cost of attending two-year colleges is therefore also potentially much lower.

In addition to struggling students who transfer to two-year institutions, there are also “strategic” 4–2 transfer students who do so. These students perform well in their four-year college but seek to take advantage of two-year courses as an inexpensive and faster way to complete their requirements.

4-2 Transfer Yields Higher Completion and No Fewer Earnings

In a research study from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment at the Community College Research center at Columbia University, I used administrative data from all public four-year and two-year colleges from one state and examined the effects of 4–2 transfer on “struggling” students, those who earned less than a 3.0 grade point average in the first term. The focus on struggling transfer students was for the sake of policy relevance.

Using 2005-06 to 2007-08 student cohorts, the descriptive statistic shows that a higher proportion of 4-2 transfer students receive postsecondary credentials (bachelor’s degree, associate degree, and certificates) than struggling students that never transfer. When broken down by award type, transfer and non-transfer students are equally likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Going further into the data, female struggling 4–2 transfer students were more likely to earn two-year college credentials relative to their peers who did not transfer. They were also more likely to major in a health-related field, which has higher two-year completion rates in general.

Regarding labor market outcomes, struggling 4–2 transfer students and non-transfer students also had similar earnings and employment rates five to seven years after enrolling in the initial four-year institution.

Policy Implications for 4-2 Transfer

The 4-2 transfer is a lot more common than the media or academia give it credit for. This report reveals that 4-2 transfer can be a good option for struggling four-year students.  Some ways that future policies could help struggling students include:

1. Placing more attention on the sizeable transfer

According to the National Student Clearinghouse report, approximately 237,000 students who started college in 2006 transferred from 4-2 institutions whereas about 260,000 students engaged in the traditional 2-4 transfer. For those who work with two-year students, they have known about 4-2 transfer students long ago. But outside of that circle, we are not really talking about it and we should be.

2. Tracking and understanding transfer students

The next step is to collect data in such a way that we can study and understand 4-2 transfer students. These students are currently missing in most higher education analysis. They are counted as dropouts in the four-year data and are missing in most two-year college analyses that often look only at students who have started college for the first time. Institutions and researchers should work together to find a proper way to track and study these transfer students who weave in and out of four-year and two-year colleges.

3. Exhausting all options for students in four-year schools before transferring

College is a time for intellectual and developmental growth. That being said, changes happen and at some point after enrolling in a four-year institution, students may decide it is not the right path for them for academic, financial, emotional or social reasons. While transferring to a two-year path does not penalize student earning, four-year schools should try their best to assist students in figuring out their problems. Mentor programs, financial aid counseling, academic advising, and other professional counseling are some great ways to help students navigate their needs, issues and options.

4. Making sure credits are transferable

While credit transfers are more common and standardized these days with 2-4 transfer (though not without problems), the system to transfer credits from four- to two-year institutions is not yet established. Four-year and two-year colleges should work together to establish the credits transfer metrics so students can experience a transfer as smooth and efficient as possible.

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[1] U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, time to completion, sex, control of institution, and acceptance rate: Selected cohort entry years, 1996 through 2008 (Table 326.10). Retrieved from NCES website:

[2] Tyson, C. (2014, September 10). The ‘murky middle.’ Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

[3] Baum, C., Ma, J., Pender, M., and Bell D. (2015). “Trends in College Pricing 2015,” The College Board. Retrieved from

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