Nearly half of all students graduating with a four-year degree in the 2013-14 school year had some experience within a two-year institution.
That detail is a part of a new report released Wednesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which found 46 percent of all students who completed a 4-year degree had been enrolled at a 2-year institution at some point in the past 10 years.
Of those students, 65 percent enrolled for at least three semesters at a community college.
“The idea that there’s only one path through college is antiquated,” said Jason DeWitt, research manager with the center.
There are different ways to earn a bachelor’s degree, he said, adding that the numbers show students may have started at a four-year institution, attended a two-year and completed at a different four-year college.
“We need to really understand the role that community colleges play to better define success in community colleges,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said the study also doesn’t completely answer the “undermatching” theory, which refers to prepared, but disadvantaged students attending less selective colleges, like two-year institutions. Undermatching theorists posit that those students are less likely to complete a four-year degree.
The report doesn't confirm or reject the undermatching phenomenon, DeWitt said, "but it does shed light on an academic pathway that has historically been understated." He added that the report tracks graduates' journey back from a bachelor's degree.
However, previous studies show that 62 percent of students who transfer from two-year to four-year institutions go on to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years of transferring, he said. The rate is even higher for students who complete a credential at the two-year college before transferring -- at 72 percent.
But Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the results show students who transfer from two-year to four-year colleges are succeeding, and undermatching isn’t as widespread as some think.
“It can’t be the case that everybody is held back for life by going to a community college,” she said.
Those students who possibly are undermatched are a very small portion of the college student body, she said, adding that there could be a myriad of reasons why they don’t choose a four-year institution, from poor high school counseling to the cost of a major university.