A frequent recommendation of financial planners is that for parents want to save money on college they should sending their kids to inexpensive community colleges and then transfer to a four-year schools after two years. That way the student gets the name brand degrees at half the price.

While I’ve long questioned how appropriate a solution this really is to the cost problem—If more students want to go to community colleges, how do the community colleges cope? They don’t have unlimited capacity. California’s community colleges ran into lots of problems during the great recession because lots of middle class students decided they wanted to study at community colleges, which can’t turn people away based on academic qualifications—there’s a bigger problem.

While it’s true a transfer student might help someone get in the back door to a more selective institution than he could ordinarily attend, it turns out, according to a piece at The Hechinger Report, that almost 40 percent of transfer students don’t get any credit from their original institutions when they transfer:

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, found that 35 percent of a sample of more than 18,000 students who began in the 2003-2004 academic year changed schools at least once. And nearly 40 percent got no transfer credit, losing an average of 27 credits apiece, or almost a full year of college.

Lost credits aggravate the already slow progress of students toward degrees. Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students still have not received those credentials after even six years.


And so they have to start all over again. Why is this?

A lot of this might have to do with the dreaded problem of remediation in America’s community colleges.

In order to start courses at many colleges, students have to take tests to determine whether or not they’re ready for credit courses. But because the test isn’t very good, and because students don’t know it’s coming and can’t, say, review the Pythagorean theorem beforehand, many don’t do that well, and have to take, and pay for, semesters of remedial courses they pay not really need.

Merely going to a nonselective, community college puts one in a track to remedial course, which students still have to pay for, but which don’t earn them any academic credit.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. Someone who transfers from a community college to a four-year university surely does transfer most of the credits. But students often transfer in the other direction, from a four-year school to a community college, and from one community college to another.

Anyone who transfers from a four-profit college, of course, has an incredibly hard time transferring any credits at all.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer