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Students are told that enrolling in a community college is a smart, affordable on-ramp to a bachelor’s degree—two years at community college, two years at a university and then a degree. But in reality, only a small percentage of students transfers and graduates. About 450,000 students transfer each year, but far too many others get waylaid by broken systems.

To fix the problem, we have to know what’s causing it. However, the kinds of data needed to fix transfer are nonexistent or severely lacking in most states, according to a new analysis of public reporting data conducted by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Why Does This Matter?

These obstacles to transferring affect hundreds of thousands of students, and the income mobility a bachelor’s degree confers is life-changing. In order to design transfer systems that work for everyone, it is imperative that we have the data to understand students’ experiences and to make the case for investments in reform.

Where Are the Data?

Little transfer data are reported federally, so the responsibility falls to states, systems and institutions. We conducted a systematic review of websites of state agencies and their related community college and four-year systems, looking for any publicly available data on transfer student outcomes and experiences. We were interested in how public reporting on transfer outcomes might vary from state to state. Yet the most staggering finding was not the differences, but the similarities: the vast majority of states have no public data at all.

We found that 31 states do not publicly report any data on transfer student outcomes and experiences. Another 14 states share some data but often do not disaggregate by race/ethnicity or income, resulting in an incomplete picture of their students’ outcomes. Just five states (Arizona, California, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington) have a comprehensive public data collection and reporting system that disaggregates transfer student outcomes by race/ethnicity and income in all or most of the categories of metrics included in our scan. While these five states displayed more robust transfer reporting, there is room for improvement in public transfer reporting in all 50 states.

Our scan focused on metrics that states and institutions could use to better understand transfer student outcomes and experiences: transfer rates, graduation rates, time to degree and credit accumulation. We found most states that do report transfer data largely focus on access: how many students transfer annually. Only nine states report any graduation rate data, and within those nine, only four disaggregate by race/ethnicity and income. Six states report on time to degree for transfer students, with only two disaggregating by race/ethnicity and income.

Even among states that report disaggregated results, there are differences in the level of detail and definitions. Some states disaggregate data by categories such as “Majority Students,” “Students of Color” and “Underrepresented Minority.” In contrast, California breaks down their student demographics by nine ethnicities. That kind of transparency into outcomes for different groups of students allows institutions to tailor their transfer systems to meet the context of their state and the specific needs of their population.

Large discrepancies also exist in how states publish data and for what purpose those data are collected. Some states issue compliance-oriented annual reports in PDF format that are both hard to find and hard to analyze. Others create interactive Tableau/PowerBI data dashboards with downloadable data designed for institutional leaders to use to inform strategy and monitor progress. Differences in data presentation are not purely aesthetic. We could more easily draw comparisons and trends within states with one cohesive, disaggregated transfer dashboard.

View our state-level findings here.

Leaders need to be able to identify where challenges lie so they can make the case for reforms, set strategic goals, fund initiatives related to those goals and hold themselves accountable for staying on track. Having access to comprehensive and clear data would allow them to do that. Partnerships like DirectConnect to UCF, a long-standing collaboration between the University of Central Florida and institutions like Valencia College, through which UCF has conferred more than 50,000 bachelor’s degrees, and ADVANCE, a partnership between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University with high graduation rates, are excellent examples of what can happen for students when leaders use data to reform transfer.

What Can We Do?

At CCRC and Aspen, we are partnering with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center as part of our Tracking Transfer 2.0 work to shed more light on transfer student outcomes disaggregated by race/ethnicity and income. Later this year, we will provide states with common metrics and disaggregated results to better track transfer student outcomes and benchmark to other states and national averages. But for more detailed reporting on key measures for improving transfer, such as whether and how credits are transferring between institutions, leaders at the state, system and institutional levels need to make that information publicly available.

How Can States Improve Transfer Data?

  • State and system-level leaders can strengthen their state-level data reporting by using the existing and forthcoming Tracking Transfer reports to help identify transfer student outcomes using metrics to benchmark performance.
  • If you currently have no public transfer data infrastructure, advocate for a data system that shines a light on transfer outcomes.
  • Collect and share transfer outcomes data at the campus level, showing detail for individual postsecondary institutions and various transfer partners.

Without public transfer data, the stories of hundreds of thousands of students—largely low-income students and students of color—are harder to tell. State leaders have the power to illuminate what is happening to the community college students who enter a four-year institution each year in search of a life-changing degree—and to those who have their aspirations cut short. We look forward to being partners with you on this journey.

If our tracker doesn’t reflect your publicly available transfer data, let us know and we’ll update it.

Alex Anacki is a research associate with the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. Jessica Steiger is a senior research assistant and Postsecondary Education Applied Research (PEAR) Fellow with the Community College Research Center and a current Ph.D. student in the sociology and education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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