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Making the Jump to a Four-Year Degree Difficult for Community College Students

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Several reports dropped this week about the difficulties community college students face transferring into a four-year college.

Nearly half of all postsecondary students are enrolled at a community college, and a poll from 2012 indicates 80 percent of those students aim to complete a degree at a four-year college or university. But while that goal is shared by many students, few actually successfully jump from a two-year to a four-year program.

David B. Monaghan and Paul Attewell, authors of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York released this week, argue it’s not the gap in academic rigor that prevents students from earning a four-year degree; rather, state universities reject a large portion of the credits transfer students have earned at a community college. This roadblock translates into a serious loss of time and money because for every credit rejected by a four-year institution, students have to take out more loans or use additional public money to retake classes they already passed at a community college.

The upshot is frustration that can lead to dropping out of the four-year program altogether. Previous research Monaghan and Attewell cite found that students who seek a bachelor’s and start at a community college are roughly 25 percent less likely to attain a four-year degree than students who begin their studies at a four-year institution.

The CUNY scholars don’t dispute this lower rate of completion others have found, but instead set out to figure out why. Where past research pointed the finger at community colleges’ focus on vocational training, Monaghan and Attewell examined how many credits universities accept from students coming from community colleges. The figures are stark: In their national sample of such students, only a little more than half of the receiving institutions accepted all or most of the credits. One in 10 four-year institutions accepted virtually no credits. This credit “choke point” affects a huge swath of the college-going population because nearly two-thirds of community college students who have passed enough coursework to enter a four-year institution move on to such a school.

The CUNY researchers conclude that for students whose credits were picked up by four-year institutions, their graduation rates matched those students who began their education at a four-year college. Fix the transfer bottleneck, and graduation rates for students seeking a bachelor’s degree would jump by a quarter, they note.

Also out this week, a paper from Public Policy Institute of California assessed how well the state’s community colleges and California State University system are working together to make good on a 2010 law that allows community college students to transfer all their credits to the Cal State system for 25 select majors if they met certain conditions. They found that roughly half of the state’s 112 community colleges enable students to transfer into a Cal State seamlessly for at least 10 of the approved majors – a quick turnaround for a four-year-old law, the authors told EWA.

The 2010 law called on both systems to identify the courses students need to take so that they earn 60 credits at the community college level and are prepared for the other 60 credits they’d need to earn at the Cal State. A typical four-year degree requires 120 credits.

Colleen Moore and Nancy Shulock, the report’s authors, said faculty are protective of their programs and might balk at outside efforts to tweak their admissions processes. “They have their own interests and specializations in place,” said Moore. That so many community colleges have managed to partner with the Cal States and pinpoint the courses students need to graduate without repeating a class speaks to the high level of coordination, Moore and Shulock note.

Roughly 40,000 to 50,000 students each year transfer from a community college to a Cal State, according to the most up-to-date data. Another 16,000 enter the more selective University of California system, though no statewide agreement on transfer credit exists between community colleges and the UCs. The California community college system enrolls 2.4 million students, according to a state-issued fact sheet – this happens to make up a quarter of the entire U.S. community college student body.

The approved 25 degrees exclude many STEM majors, mostly because the hard sciences and math tend to require more credits. And even within the majors included in the program, not all concentrations can be carried over. The authors said a community college student majoring in business wouldn’t be able to transfer credits to a Cal State as easily toward a finance or accounting concentration, for example.

But California could be a model for other states to follow. While in other states fewer than half of college students are enrolled at a community college, in California it’s closer to three-quarters. That’s due to the tougher eligibility requirements the state’s two university systems impose on students compared with those in many other states, say Moore and Shulock. If the most populous state in the country can encourage faculty to band together, there’s hope other states can do the same. Already, Wyoming, Delaware, Washington and Rhode Island have rules (often referred to as “articulation agreements”) in place to ease the transition from community college to a state school, Allie Bidwell of U.S. News & World Report noted.

According to a recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center analysis of graduation rates for students entering college in 2006, 15 percent of students at two-year public colleges (the majority of which are community colleges) graduated from a four-year institution within six years.

But if community colleges are to help more of their students advance to a four-year degree, they’ll likely need help from the state and federal legislators who control the purse strings. In 2013, the Century Foundation calculated that in the decade leading up to 2009, community college funding increased by one dollar per student. On the other side of scale were private research universities, where per-student funding soared by $14,000 per student.