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Free college proposals that various candidates have recently put forth completely miss the fundamental problems facing students as they pursue a college degree. Colleges concentrate too much on recruiting new students and need to do more to retain and graduate the ones who are already enrolled in higher education. The focus should be on loss of transfer credits and college completion, which would help more students graduate on time with less debt.

With the coronavirus pandemic creating so much uncertainty about the future and the economy, I expect a lot of students will look to transfer colleges to take courses closer to home, with low-cost community colleges being the first option. I also expect more students will look to start at a community college to try and save money. Colleges that do the best job serving transfer students will be the ones to thrive over the next several years.

The average transfer student loses more than 40 percent of their credits, and over all less than half of all students who start college will graduate with a degree. States can make college as free as they want, but if they don’t have a system in place to help students get through these institutions and graduate on time with a college degree that allows them to go directly into a good job, or to fully transfer the credits to a bachelor’s degree, they are doing more harm than good.

The entire free college movement involves spending hundreds of billions of dollars and flooding public colleges and universities with new students. The increase in funding to those students will result in states cutting appropriations to their public institutions. That forces colleges to raise tuition on other students not eligible for the free college program to make up for the reduction in state funding.

For some students, community college is already free. According to the College Board, it is basically free for students eligible for a Pell Grant. The grant pays $6,195 a year, and the average student pays $3,730 for tuition and fees, leaving those students with an additional $2,465 for educational expenses such as books and transportation.

The main problem is that students do not have a clear path through these institutions that will allow them to fully transfer their credits and apply them to a bachelor’s degree at a public four-year institution. Around 80 percent of community college students who transfer to a four-year college or university do not complete a degree before transferring. Many leave early and pay from three times up to 10 times more in tuition to take classes they couldn’t get at their community college because these courses were not offered or the credits wouldn’t transfer.

When students take classes at their state community colleges, those college-level courses and credits should transfer and apply to their bachelor’s degree at their state universities. This is a bipartisan issue. Students should not be losing credits when transferring within their own state public higher education system. We need to put a system in place to prevent this from happening.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 38 percent of all college students will transfer at least once before completing a bachelor’s degree. The vast majority of students will transfer either into or out of a community college. Inefficient transfer credit systems cause a large number of community college students to transfer before completing their associate’s degree. For those who started at a community college, only 5.6 percent of students transferred after earning an associate’s degree at their starting institution.

Community college transfer students represent 49 percent of all students who complete bachelor’s degrees in the United States. My previous research, as well as data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Government Accountability Office, would suggest that the average community college student who successfully transfers to a public four-year institution loses an average of 20 percent of their credits. This loss of credits would be equivalent to almost an entire semester of credits and would delay the student's time to graduate.

A report from the NSC Research Center shows that the more colleges a student attends, the longer it takes to get a degree. This is a major reason that students do not graduate on time. Most students take 5.1 years to get a bachelor’s degree. At public four-year colleges, it takes students 5.2 years, and at public two-year colleges it takes 3.4 years for an associate’s degree.

My previous studies on transfer students, as well as data from the NSC Research Center, show that students who attend community colleges and are able to successfully transfer those credits to four-year public institutions have some of the highest graduation rates at the four-year colleges.

The conversations taking place in Washington and our state capitals completely miss the reality of what is happening to students in our public higher education systems.

At some point, our educational leaders and policy makers need to stop blaming lack of funding for all the problems in our higher education systems and instead look at how the policies and procedures that are currently in place hurt student success. We spend a lot of time worrying about the outside barriers that students face, but we don’t do enough to remove the state and institutional roadblocks that keep students from graduating on time or graduating at all. Leaders and policy makers must put a statewide system in place that guarantees that community college students can transfer credits, enforce and maintain that system, and produce an annual report that tracks whether the system is actually working for the students. If states don’t have such an annual report, then they will have no idea if the system is, in fact, working.

Attending a community college is not a barrier to helping students get bachelor's degrees. Community colleges provide a quality, affordable and rigorous academic experience, comparable to the first two years at any four-year school. The barrier for students is when they attempt to transfer those credits to a state university and are not able to apply them to their majors and have to spend valuable time and money retaking classes.

The solution to this problem would be for the federal government and states to enact legislation mandating statewide transfer and articulation agreements between the community college system and all public four-year institutions in the state. Many states have laws that govern transfer credits, but very few states actually fully enforce those laws to ensure students can apply those college level credits to their bachelor’s degree.

With the costs of higher education soaring, and states facing huge budget deficits, community colleges are the last affordable route to a bachelor’s degree for many middle- and lower-income students. A statewide transfer credit system would make higher education more affordable and accessible by ensuring that community college students are not paying twice to retake similar classes and can graduate on time with less debt. This will also save the students, states and the federal government billions of dollars each year.

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