A 'Penalty' for Starting at a Community College?

October 1, 2008

Almost half of students enrolled in public colleges attend two-year institutions, whose role in expanding access to higher education continues to increase even as financial support for the institutions fails to keep up with student demand. Not all community college students start out with the goal of earning a bachelor's degree, but even for those who do, the path is laden with obstacles.

Experts have debated whether it's in these students' best interests to beef up advising and outreach to help them at the community college level or if, rather, encouraging them to enroll at two-year institutions can lead them to get sidetracked. Studies in the past have shown that students who successfully transfer from two-year to four-year colleges do as well as their peers who started at baccalaureate institutions to begin with -- but the problem is getting to that point.

A working paper circulated in September by the National Bureau of Economic Research takes a look at the entire pathway, from community college to bachelor's degree, and compares students' success over a nine-year period with their peers who began at four-year colleges. Like previous studies, it found a significant "penalty," or decreased likelihood of completing a degree, for students who started out in community colleges compared to those who started at four-year institutions.

Although it conflicts with some efforts to expand access to higher education, the implication is that students with the desire to earn a four-year degree would be better off if they started out at four-year colleges rather than trying to transfer out of a community college.

The paper offers a closer look at more recent, more comprehensive data than previous studies have used. Taking as its focus the entire entering class of 1998 in Ohio's public higher education system, the research tracks every student over a nine-year period and uses several statistical techniques to control for differences between groups. For example, the student who enters a community college is more likely to be from a disadvantaged background, and the student who successfully transfers to a four-year college may have been more driven than average to navigate the system.

The study, by Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and Michal Kurlaender, an education professor at the University of California at Davis, quantifies the penalty at 14.5 percent, which they say is a conservative estimate. In other words, a student who enrolls at a community college with the intention of earning a bachelor's degree in Ohio is 14.5 percent less likely to do so within nine years than is a student who starts out at a four-year public college in the state.

The difficulty with comparing degree completion rates between two-year and four-year colleges is that the profile of students attending each isn't necessarily comparable. On average, community college students are older, more likely to be minorities and to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition, not all students who enroll in a community college intend to earn a bachelor's degree, and even those who do can change their minds. For example, Long said in an interview, about 60 percent of students in the sample from ages 17 to 20 who enrolled in two-year colleges began with that intent.

To overcome that and related procedural hurdles, the study's authors looked at two sources: an item in the application for Ohio community colleges that asks students about their ultimate goals (such as earning a degree or job certification), and whether or not students took the ACT. The latter variable, Long said, was crucial in distinguishing students who "we think are pretty serious about wanting to get a bachelor’s degree."

Without taking such considerations into account, she said, "things look bad for community colleges." But separating the students with a "demonstrated intent" of graduating with a four-year degree solves the apples-and-oranges problem of comparing students from different types of institutions. While the results still show a penalty for community college students, it's smaller than it otherwise would be and suggests possible solutions.

"I think what we’re trying to say ... in the paper [is that] a lot of policy is putting a lot of pressure on the community colleges, and they already are not really supported financially. In comparison to their four-year counterparts, they receive a lot less money," Long said. So, rather than arguing that students who would otherwise have started at community colleges should be siphoned off to four-year colleges instead, she said it was important to improve support and make it easier for students to transfer.

David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, emphasized the differences between the typical community college student and those at four-year colleges, and said the penalty identified in the study was "not very great" considering the circumstances. He also added that it was difficult to pinpoint students' goals, since even those change over time.

"The whole question or issue of student intentions is a very difficult one -- what students say they plan to do, what they want to do, what they really want to do, often changes ... in the course of their college education," Baime said. "It’s a sort of a behavioral reality that many more students [say they want a B.A.] than actually seem to based on their attendance patterns."

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