Educators and researchers have known for some time that most students who enter community colleges with the intention to transfer to a four-year institution never do.
For example, a 2016 report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College found that of the nearly 1.1 million students who enroll at two-year institutions each year, about 80 percent indicate their goal is to transfer and earn a bachelor's degree. But only 14 percent earn a bachelor's degree within six years.
New research released today from the American Talent Initiative shows that even community college students with high grade point averages often aren't transferring to universities.
According to the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, each year more than 50,000 community college students are prepared to do well at a four-year university but fail to transfer. And 15,000 of those students have earned at least a 3.7 GPA and could transfer to selective universities.
"Colleges have traditionally looked at high school students as the pipeline for all the diversity they need," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen program. "You look at the data and the world around them has changed. Students not getting adequate opportunities are ending up more and more at community colleges. This report is about recognizing that talent is distributed in a greater number of institutions than some [American Talent Initiative] institutions and some of the top colleges in our country have recognized."
ATI, which is a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, Aspen and Ithaka S+R, is also an alliance of about 100 four-year universities that have partnered to enroll and graduate 50,000 low- and moderate-income students by 2025. The universities all consistently graduate 70 percent or more of their students in six years. But only 18 percent of new students across all ATI institutions have transferred, compared to 32 percent at all four-year institutions.
"There are many pathways by which colleges can find high-achieving transfer students, whether of traditional age or older," Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College, said in a statement. "I understand the obstacles and situations that students can face on the route to a four-year degree, and I am enormously proud of the extra lengths that a place like Smith goes to make sure women of promise can realize their dreams."
There are several obstacles blocking even high-achieving community college students from transferring to a four-year institution. One is financial, Wyner said.
The average time to complete an associate degree is four years. For many students who go to a two-year institution using federal financial aid, said Wyner, that money can be mostly gone after four years, particularly for students who attended part-time or took developmental education courses.
"You're hard-pressed to finish a bachelor's degree with a Pell Grant," he said. "You would have to go and finish in two years, and for many students that's hard because they may have to go part-time. They may also get through an associate [degree] and need to move back into the world of work and never get back to a bachelor's degree."
Another issue: some community colleges aren't adequately advising students on what they need to do to be prepared for transfer.
"One of the most important things is to help students pick a major and transfer destination early in their community college career," Wyner said. "If you don't do that, you risk taking the wrong courses."
Preparing students for transfer isn't just the responsibility of the two-year institution, said Tania LaViolet, a senior program manager in Aspen's College Excellence Program and the co-leader of ATI.
"The strongest transfer partnerships and pipelines happen when there are strong relationships between community colleges and four-year institutions from leadership down to the staff level," she said.
Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia, said it's a mistake to assume that every community college student intends to transfer and that many, even if they had plans to transfer, instead may find well-paying jobs instead.
"Our four-year institutions need to be absolutely communicating with two-year partners … and to be, certainly, a little more equitable with regard to how credits are articulated for transfer students," Marling said. "There are still a lot of assumptions about rigor at the community college level. Some [are] false and some have merit. We tend to be biased about what we will apply toward a major."
Demographics and Transfer
Even so, a growing number of universities are opening their doors to more transfer students. For example, the University of California system in April signed a joint agreement with the California community college system to guarantee admission for all qualified transfer students.
Wyner said Princeton's move reflects a growing trend of traditional institutions recognizing where a growing number of undergraduates are beginning their educations.
"Community college students, even as recent as 20 to 30 years ago, didn't comprise such a large portion of the undergraduate population," he said. "Forty percent of all undergraduates are in community colleges, and two-thirds of all students are below the median household income in our country."
So universities that care about socioeconomic diversity on their campuses have realized they have to go to community colleges for those students, Wyner said.
ATI universities like Smith and the University of California, Los Angeles, have spent decades working to improve their transfer rates and processes. At UCLA, for instance, more than 33 percent of the undergraduate population are transfer students. More than 90 percent of those students come from the state's community college system.
Since 2006, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has partnered with 10 community colleges through its Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program, or C-STEP, to help about 900 students transfer in and graduate. The program brings community college students to campus to meet faculty, staff and other transfer students. They receive specialized advice, and the university -- as it does with many nontraditional students -- offers help with financial aid, family housing and childcare services.
"It's a fabulous opportunity to reach out to smart students in our community who never thought they had an opportunity to attend," said Rebecca Egbert, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC and C-STEP program director. "We wanted them here and we welcomed them."
Egbert said she would love to see C-STEP expand to some of the other 58 community colleges in the state. In the meantime, she said, other universities are following UNC's lead. North Carolina State University announced last week that it will admit more low- and moderate-income graduates from eight regional community colleges.
Still, the trend to encourage transfer from two-year colleges isn't moving fast enough, Wyner said.
Marling points to barriers that don't involve the two- or four-year institutions that may keep a high-achieving community college student from transferring, such as difficulty in understanding long-term earnings potential based on degree levels, the pressure of relocating from one community to another, finding the university too intimidating and the difficulty in explaining the benefits of more college to a student's family.
"We want to help students build that capital to see themselves as university students," Marling said. "UCLA does this well. All summer long they have community college students on their campuses. They see it and know they can do it through peer mentoring or faculty mentoring … hosting workshops on what to expect."
Next month ATI universities will meet to dive into the research and develop plans for increasing transfer from community colleges, Wyner said, adding that the initiative will track the goals of each institution to see if they've progressed or not.
"We need to start rethinking the way we imagine and think about the pathways to opportunities at these schools," LaViolet said. "Even if we engage in modest change, if every ATI institution were to increase enrollment and add an additional 40 transfer community college students to their student bodies, that would help us get halfway to our 2025 goal."