The notion that community colleges are key to putting students on a path to a four-year degree is not a new one; large numbers of Americans begin their postsecondary studies at two-year colleges, and transfer is one of the institutions' traditional functions. But new data from the National Student Clearinghouse show just how prevalent a role two-year institutions play in providing an educational foundation for those who go on to get bachelor's degrees.
The study  -- one of a series on student mobility that the clearinghouse has begun producing to capitalize on the unique data it collects as a repository of student-level information from more than 3,000 colleges -- reveals that 45 percent of all students who finished a four-year degree in 2010-11 had previously enrolled at a two-year college.
Of those students, 24 percent had been enrolled at the two-year institution for just one term, 16 percent for two terms, and 19 percent for three or four terms. But a full 12 percent were enrolled for at least 10 terms, suggesting that even students who spend a significant length of time at a community college might eventually go on to a four-year college.
The data also show that while some of those students take their time finishing degrees upon transferring to four-year institutions, more than half of them earn their bachelor's degrees within three years. Of the 45 percent of four-year-degree completers in 2010-11 who had studied at a community college, 16 percent earned their bachelor's degree within one year of enrolling at the four-year institution, and 36 percent had earned a degree within three years of enrolling. (Twenty-four percent earned degrees within 4 or 5 years, 11 percent within 6 or 7 years, and 7 percent in 10 or more years.)
There is large variation among states in the rates at which four-year-degree holders had prepared at least in part at community colleges. As seen in the table below, one-time community college students made up more than half of the four-year-degree recipients in 13 states -- and more than three-quarters of such students in Texas.
Percentage of Four-Year-Degree Recipients With Community College Backgrounds, by State
2010-11 Degree Completers
at 4-Year Institutions
at 4-Year Institutions Who Previously Enrolled at 2-Year Institutions
% of Degree Completers at 4-Year Institutions Who Previously Enrolled
at 2-Year Institutions
|District of Columbia||23,853||6,608||28%|