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Different academic trajectories and goals at community colleges complicate the matrix to measure institutional and student success. Institutional success at community colleges may be achieved when students successfully transfer to four-year institutions. Or community college transfer students may view their success as graduating from four-year institutions with bachelor’s degrees. At four-year institutions, their student retention figures are mainly based on following first-time, full-time freshman cohorts over time.

As a result, four-year institutions may have little understanding of their community college transfer students’ persistence behavior. While a number of studies investigated community college transfer students and their bachelor’s degree attainment, little is known about nontraditional community college transfer students and their efforts to graduate from four-year institutions. Prompted by a paucity of information on nontraditional community college transfer students and their college success, I investigated the likelihood of nontraditional community college transfer students attaining bachelor’s degrees.     

Given the importance of increasing the college degree attainment rate to the country, two-year institutions have been educating minority, low-income and first-generation students. By leveraging information from nationally representative data, my study explored community college students who transferred to four-year institutions and their four-year-degree attainment.

Study findings suggest no difference in the likelihood of graduating from four-year institutions between nontraditional-aged or first-generation community college transfer students and their counterparts. 

Thus, the pathway to bachelor’s degree attainment through two-year institutions remains a valid option for nontraditional or first-generation students in their college plans.

Factors Impacting Successful Degree Attainment

The timing of transfers to four-year institutions impacted the odds of bachelor’s degree attainment in this study. While transferring to four-year institutions in the third and second year improved the chance of earning four-year college degrees, how many credit hours from community colleges students were able to apply toward their bachelor’s degree attainment was unclear in the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. Perhaps the NCES may consider collecting transfer credit hours in their future national data sets so that the relationship between transferable credit hours and transfer timing would be appropriately examined.

Students with higher accumulated loan amounts were more likely to graduate from four-year colleges and universities. This particular finding may validate the appropriateness of the human capital theory as the theoretical framework. On the other hand, this study was not able to appropriately examine the effect of other financial aid such as various grants on degree attainment due to a lack of information in the BPS data. Furthermore, students from lower-income families were less likely than their counterparts to graduate from four-year institutions in this study. Thus, further investigation focusing on low-income community college transfer students and their financial needs at four-year institutions is much needed.

Nontraditional students have a number of responsibilities that traditional students may not face while attending college. Having children is one of such responsibilities that adult college students face. Moreover, taking care of children requires adult students to fulfill financial and physical demands, which takes a toll on their educational endeavors. Taniguchi and Kaufman (2005) reported that having children had a negative effect on bachelor’s degree attainment. In a similar vein, this study also found that having children reduced the likelihood for community college transfer students to graduate from four-year institutions by 73 percent on average.

Childcare incurs additional financial burden for students with dependents. Hess et al. (2012) reported that 59 percent of students with children who dropped out of college stated that they would have stayed in college if they had access to affordable day care. Certain colleges and universities offer day-care services to their students with dependents. However, the prevalence of campus day-care services has been declining. About 55 percent of four-year institutions offered day-care services in 2005, whereas about 49 percent of them had day-care service centers on campus.

Nevertheless, having children is one of the reasons adult learners decide to seek bachelor’s degrees. According to Grabowski et al. (2016), adult students were motivated to graduate with bachelor’s degrees to provide future financial stability to support their families. Perhaps a lack of campus childcare may be addressed by expanding online courses designed for nontraditional students to eliminate expenses associated with day care.

Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Degree Attainment

The role of community college transfer students is critical to improving the number of college graduates in the nation. As the number of nontraditional students is expected to grow in the high education landscape (NCES 2020a), our colleges and universities need to strengthen their commitment to serving adult learners, particularly nontraditional community college transfer students who seek bachelor’s degrees. Given that nontraditional students are responsible for multiple life roles, colleges and universities need to be flexible to meet their unique needs. For example, meeting academic advisers during regular office hours is challenging for nontraditional students with full-time employment. An institution may consider forming a group of after-hours advisers who are dedicated to serving nontraditional transfer students.

Given open admissions policies, enrolling in a community college is an attractive option. However, nontraditional students may be required to take a number of remedial courses due to elapsed time between college enrollment and high school graduation. Timing of transfer is affected by the number of remedial courses students may have to take at community colleges. Spending time on too many remedial courses may deter nontraditional students from continuing their education.

As a result, nontraditional students inspired to earn bachelor’s degrees may lose motivation to transfer to four-year institutions. This issue is salient to community colleges and adult learners enrolled in community colleges wishing to transfer to four-year institutions, which warrants further investigation.

The BPS longitudinal study followed enrollment patterns of first-time freshmen at the institutions they initially matriculated. Thus, the data lack enrollment patterns of community college transfer students at four-year institutions. Since the current study examined community college transfer students and their bachelor’s degree attainment, their longitudinal departure behavior at four-year institutions is beyond the scope of this study. Given that increasing the number of bachelor’s degree recipients is of paramount importance to enrich the country’s economy, national assessment of longitudinal persistence behaviors of community transfer students at four-year institutions is in urgent need to support nontraditional students and their educational endeavor.

Terry Ishitani is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research interests include college access and retention, enrollment management, and institutional research. Access his full report, “Nontraditional Community College Transfer Students and Their Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” here.

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