More Than 40% of Community College Transfer Students Unable to Transfer Credits

Community colleges enroll about 40 percent of American undergraduates. But many question how rigorous the education is and doubt whether these two-year schools are properly preparing students for four-year degrees or good careers. Researcher after researcher has confirmed that students would be more likely to get a BA degree if they had started at a four-year college in the first place. (See citations here.)

Two researchers at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York conclude that a big reason many community college students fail to get a four-year degree is not because of inferior academic preparation, but because the four year colleges they transfer to won’t accept many of their community college credits.

“The greater the (credit) loss, the lower the chances of completing a BA,” wrote Paul Attewell and David Monaghan, both of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in “The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree,” published March 2014 in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Specifically, the researchers found that only 58 percent of community college transfers are able to bring all or almost all (90 percent or more) of their credits with them. About 14 percent of transfers lose more than 90 percent of their credits. The researchers calculated that the transfer students’ graduation rate would jump to 54 percent from 46 percent – if not for the loss of academic credits.

“This percentage is potentially underestimated,” said Attewell in a press release. “The obstacle of losing credits is bigger than we could measure.”

New Jersey is the one state that requires its state four-year colleges to accept credits earned in state community colleges. The researchers came up with the 8 percentage point jump in graduation rate by applying the New Jersey policy to the rest of the country.

Despite the difficulty of transferring to a four-year school and graduating, 45 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded to students who have transferred from a community college. That’s according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Related stories:

Almost a third of college drop outs would have been more likely to graduate had they started at a two-year college

High student loan default rates among largest community colleges

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.