An Affordable Pathway to a Bachelor's Degree

Despite the frequent loss of credits, transferring from a community college to a university is less expensive than starting at a four-year institution, a new study finds.

May 22, 2017

Students who are eager to pursue four-year degrees without taking on too much student debt are increasingly turning to community colleges as their first step to a bachelor’s degree.

But transferring across institutions often isn’t easy, and many students lose credits when they transition from a two-year to a four-year institution.

Despite that loss in credits, a new paper from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College finds that attending a community college first and transferring is less expensive than enrolling at a four-year institution as a freshman.

“The bottom line is if you complete, it’s cheaper to go to the community college,” said Clive Belfield, a professor of economics at Queens College of the City University of New York system, who co-authored the paper. “Students lose a lot of credits, maybe 10 to 15 credits, and that’s a whole semester, but it doesn't change the calculation.”

For example, in one state the researchers found that the average overall cost to a student who completes a bachelor's degree is $72,390 if they start at a community college and $74,630 if the student starts at a four-year institution. CCRC didn't identify which states they studied.

Most community college students -- more than 80 percent -- indicate they enroll at their institutions with the intention of completing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college. About one-third of students who begin at a two-year institution transfer to a four-year college, according to CCRC.

“When you go to a four-year college, you do as well as those who started at a four-year college,” Belfield said, adding that even if the transfer student has lost credits and may need to catch up, they tend to be on equal footing with the traditional four-year student.

Students may lose credits when transferring for a number of reasons that range from inefficiencies in the system, poor or no articulation agreements between institutions, a lack of communication about the transfer process, or students choosing to take courses that don’t fall within their program's pathway. When students lose credits, their total cost for college and time to degree increase.

The researchers examined community colleges in two states -- one state with strong articulation agreements and transfer pathways and another with weaker ones.

Belfield cautioned that different states may vary on whether starting at the community college is less expensive.

“The average is in favor of the community college, but there is a wide range of scenarios in which that’s not the case,” he said. “If the community college fees are high and four-year college fees are low, then it’s starting to look like you shouldn't start at a community college.”

The other major piece the paper examines is the diversion effect. That effect happens when community college students become discouraged and less likely to earn a degree. Students can become discouraged for any number of reasons, but common ones include taking remedial courses or maintaining low GPAs.

“That seems to be the big risk for students who start at a community college,” said Will Doyle, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. “There’s this substantial reduction in the probability of completing a bachelor’s degree, even among students who show similar academic qualifications and other characteristics.”

Doyle said community colleges shouldn't be blamed completely for the diversion effect, that it’s caused by a number of issues or roadblocks to student completion.

The CCRC researchers found it’s harder to identify those students who are discouraged from even attempting to transfer.

“The great danger here is not is not pathway or transferring inefficiencies,” said Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to low-income students. “It’s that people feel discouraged and lose motivation and they simply won’t take the initiative to ultimately transfer the credits. They get burned out.”

Cost isn’t and shouldn’t be the only consideration, Levy said.

Doyle points to the differences in support, social resources and communities that students may get at a four-year institution that they wouldn’t at a two-year one.

“There are values in going to a four-year institution beyond costs,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s bad to get an associate degree. It’s wonderful, but people need to be realistic about what they are missing and realistic about what’s the likelihood they’re going to ultimately pursue their four-year degree.”

But the burden is on colleges and universities to make the path as clear as possible for students who say they want to earn a four-year degree. That means being transparent about credits early on, instead of waiting until the student applies for the transfer.

“There’s an obligation here if we’re going to say if you start at a community college you have the same opportunities to complete a four-year degree,” Doyle said. “We have to make that true for students.”

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Ashley A. Smith

Ashley A. Smith, Reporter, covers community colleges, for-profit schools and non-traditional students for Inside Higher Ed. She joined the publication in 2015 after covering government and K-12 education for the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida for three years. Ashley also covered K-12 and higher education for three years at the Marshfield News-Herald in Wisconsin. She has interned with The Flint Journal, USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. Ashley grew up in Detroit and is a 2008 graduate of Michigan State University. 

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