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Recently released reports show outcomes disappointing to transfer student advocates.

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New data show that fewer than half of community college students who transfer to four-year institutions go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, and these poor outcomes are more pronounced among the most vulnerable student populations.

The findings were detailed in two new reports, one focused on community colleges and another on four-year institutions, released Wednesday by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The findings draw on data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

“Tracking Transfer” reports have been published regularly since 2017, but this is the first time the transfer student outcomes data were disaggregated by categories such as race, ethnicity and income.

Only about a third of students who started community college during the 2015–16 academic year transferred to four-year colleges and universities, a statistic that hasn’t changed since 2007, according to the reports. Among those who did transfer, fewer than half, 48 percent, earned bachelor’s degrees. The reports also cite research indicating that about 80 percent of community college students intend to transfer.

Over all, only 16 percent of community college students transferred and completed a bachelor’s degree within six years, up slightly from 14 percent in 2016. Outcomes were worse for certain subgroups of students; only 9 percent of Black community college students and 13 percent of Hispanic students transferred from community college and earned their bachelor’s degrees within six years. The same was true for 11 percent of low-income students and 6 percent of learners aged 25 and older.

“The system is not supporting students,” said Tatiana Velasco, lead author of the reports and research associate at the CCRC. “Partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions are struggling to deliver outcomes.” Meanwhile, “low-income students, students of color and older adults are the students who are most affected by these underperforming transfer systems.”

A Widespread Problem

State-level data show that some states made gains in their transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rates for these students, but there was no state where even a fourth of community college students went on to earn their bachelor’s degrees.

“No state should look at this data and consider it a win,” said Tania LaViolet, director of research and innovation at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “Even for the states who are doing well relative to others, there is still much more work that needs to be done.”

Some community colleges, however, are producing positive outcomes, according to the reports. More than a quarter of community colleges, 27 percent, had bachelor’s degree completion rates above the national rate for both their transfer students over all and for Hispanic students, and 15 percent of colleges exceeded the national rate for Black students.

The reports also found that some types of four-year universities do better than others at graduating transfer students.

Only about a quarter of students who transferred to private for-profit institutions and to predominantly online institutions earned a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring, compared to 57 percent of transfers to public four-year institutions and 44 percent of transfers to private nonprofit universities. Black transfer students are twice as likely to go to for-profits or predominantly online institutions, where their bachelor’s completion rates are 13 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

LaViolet said these “staggeringly low” graduation rates for transfer students should be “a wake-up call to those institutions, but also to community college leaders to think twice about whether they should be sending their students there.”

Hispanic-serving institutions and Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander–serving institutions outperformed their peers, enrolling significant numbers of transfer students. These colleges also offered better bachelor’s degree completion rates than the national rate for transfer students over all and various student subgroups, including students of color, low-income students and older adults.

“You can look to where things are working well and learn from the exemplars, because there are institutions and leaders and practitioners who have figured this out,” LaViolet said. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can look to them for answers and learn how to adapt that to your individual context … This is not rocket science. This is a solvable problem.”

Velasco said the findings are a “strong call to four-year institutions” to consider their importance as “an active partner with community colleges in serving transfer students.”

She noted that 81 percent of transfer students stay enrolled into their second year at their four-year institutions, indicating that students are “highly motivated” and want to be there, yet so many of them leave before finishing a degree.

“They should receive tailored support to their needs,” such as academic advising from “day one,” she said. “And institutions should recognize their motivation and their strength.”

Alexandra Logue, professor emerita at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York system, noted that not all community college students want or need bachelor’s degrees, but those who do want them too often encounter barriers that prevent them from getting the degrees.

She and colleagues at the CUNY system authored a January report, published in the Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, tracking the transfer journeys of upwards of 17,000 community college students in the system. They found that at each stage of the process—persisting in their community college programs, applying to bachelor’s programs, enrolling at new universities, persisting in their bachelor’s programs—a chunk of students stopped out.

“When you have these leakages that are occurring at all these different stages, the cumulative effect of it is enormous,” said Logue, who also served as a policy advisory board member for the reports (and who contributes to Inside Higher Ed’s blog series “Beyond Transfer”).

Meanwhile, these students disproportionately have time and financial constraints, so they “start college at a moment in time when everything’s OK for them and they can actually enroll,” she added. “But anytime … their job could change, their car could break down, something happens that messes up this balance that they had, and they can’t continue. So it’s like a race … can they get through before something goes wrong that will stop them from being able to finish?”

Possible Solutions

The reports did indicate some ways to give students a leg up in completing their bachelor’s degrees once they transfer.

Notably, students who previously participated in dual-enrollment programs transferred and earned their bachelor’s degrees at significantly higher rates than their peers. More than half of prior dual-enrollment students, 57 percent, transferred, and of those transfers, 61 percent completed a bachelor’s degree. Black transfer students who took dual-enrollment courses completed bachelor’s degrees at rates 18 percentage points higher than Black transfer students who didn’t.

Velasco pointed out, however, that too often dual-enrollment students have “some form of advantage or privilege.” Research shows that students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities are underrepresented among these students, and low-income high schools are less likely to have dual-enrollment offerings available.

“When we think about dual enrollment as a policy to increase bachelor completion, we need to think about … expanding the benefits of it to all students,” she said.

Transfer students who earned associate degrees also fared better, though 59 percent of community college transfers don’t earn an associate degree before arriving at their four-year institutions. Associate degree earners were 60 percent more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree than their peers who transferred without one.

Logue added, however, that how useful an associate degree is depends on how many credits transfer between institutions.

There’s work to be done at the state level as well, LaViolet noted. She said part of the reason transfer is such an intractable issue is a dearth of state data on it. A 2023 analysis by the Community College Research Center and the Aspen Institute found that 31 states had no public data on transfer student outcomes. Only five had comprehensive, publicly available transfer data disaggregated by race and income.

With the newly released data now at their disposal, “it is incumbent on state leaders and institutional leaders to continue to look at and interrogate this data and understand what it is that they can do better,” she said.

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