Understudied Barriers to Transfer

These three barriers to transfer student completion deserve more attention, argue Davis Jenkins and John Fink.

September 6, 2016
iStock/Alexander Yershov

Earlier this year, we published a study that found that although the majority of students who enter higher education through a community college intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, nationally only 14 percent do so within six years of starting college. In comparison, about 60 percent of students who start college at a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Research we and others have done on transfer, together with years of visiting colleges and talking to students, has given us some insight into why transfer outcomes are so poor. But our colleagues Di Xu, Shanna Jaggars and Jeffrey Fletcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center recently released a working paper that illuminates some of the less understood barriers community college students face as they seek a bachelor’s degree. In the study, Xu and her colleagues examined outcomes over 10 years for students who started at a community college in Virginia and who intended to earn a bachelor’s degree. The researchers matched those students with those who started at a four-year institution based on their personal characteristics and their first-term grade point averages and course-taking patterns.

The study identifies five barriers that community college students face in trying to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. Two of these have been fairly well researched in the literature: the difficulty students have transferring credits, and posttransfer “academic shock.” The other three have received less attention from either researchers or practitioners. Yet they may pose even bigger barriers to transfer student success than the first two. Understanding them is critical for colleges that want to tackle this problem. Here is what Xu and her colleagues found.

Understudied Transfer Barrier 1: Lack of Early Momentum

One obstacle to transfer student success that has not been adequately studied is that, compared to students who enter college through a four-year institution, community college entrants earn college-level credits at a slower pace. Part of this is due to the fact that community college students are more likely to enroll part time or to take remedial credits, which do not count toward a degree. Xu and her colleagues try to account for these differences by comparing groups of two- and four-year entrants who were matched on numerous student characteristics, including whether or not they started college as a full-time student and if they had ever taken a remedial course. Even when using this matched sample, as is shown in Figure 1, four-year entrants on average take a higher course load each semester than do similar community college students. This, combined with the fact that community colleges students take more remedial courses, means that community college students fall farther and farther behind their four-year peers in earning credits over time (see Figure 2).

Understudied Transfer Barrier 2: Unclear Transfer Pathways

Many community colleges and universities have put a great deal of energy into developing articulation agreements intended to clarify the path for community college students seeking to transfer. Many states also have developed such agreements for their public higher education systems. Most of them are based on a 2+2 model, in which students take two years of lower-division, general education coursework followed by two years of courses in their major at the university. The study shows that few students follow this path. Over 40 percent of bachelor’s-seeking community college students in their sample transferred to a university with fewer than 60 college credits (the number typically required for an associate degree). While little more than a quarter (27 percent) of such students transferred to a four-year institution in the third year after entering a community college, some students transferred sooner (16 percent) and most (57 percent) transferred three years or more after starting at the community college.

As Xu and her colleagues say, there is no “well-trodden pathway” to a bachelor’s degree for community college students. This suggests that most students do not follow the articulation agreements developed by colleges, universities and state systems. Why this is so is unclear. However, hints about the answer come from research showing that students have a hard time understanding transfer agreements and our observation that most community colleges do not keep close track of students’ progress toward transfer goals.

Understudied Transfer Barrier 3: Students Make Progress, but Don’t Transfer

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the study is that many community college students who indicate a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree make substantial progress in their community college course work but do not end up transferring. About half of bachelor’s degree-seeking students in the sample earned at least 60 college-level credits at a community college but did not transfer. And almost a third of such students who earned an associate degree from a community college did not transfer. Thus, many students are leaving cards on the table. More research is needed into why this is the case.

Overcoming Barriers

The study of transfer student outcomes in Virginia by our CCRC colleagues suggests that, if transfer outcomes are to improve, community colleges and universities should work together to address these three less understood obstacles. How?

First, community colleges need to pay much more attention to early student momentum and work to encourage and support students to take higher credit loads (while also adopting acceleration strategies that minimize the time students spend in remediation). Second, two- and four-year institutions should more clearly map out the pathways to successful transfer and also help students choose a transfer path, monitor their progress and provide advising and support when their progress stalls or students go off track. Finally, practitioners and researchers need to examine why so many community college students who seek a bachelor’s degree make good progress at their two-year institution but fail to transfer to a four-year institution.

In partnership with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence program, we recently published The Transfer Playbook, which describes how two- and four-year college partnerships can pursue these and other strategies to help students overcome the barriers they face to transfer. Continued work on all three of these fronts holds great potential to fix one of the leakiest parts of our higher education pipeline: students who start at a community college and never fulfill their dream of earning a bachelor’s degree.


Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. John Fink is a research associate with CCRC.

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