Community College as a Pathway to a Four-Year Degree

Community colleges are often promoted as a great way for students to start on the path to a four-year degree: they’re lower cost than four-year colleges and it’s more likely the student can live at home to save additional money. However, a recent study showed that while 81% of students entering community colleges aspired to a bachelor’s degree, only 14% actually earn one within six years of starting at a community college. In fact, only 1/3 of community college students in the study’s cohort even transferred to a four-year institution.

Looking at the costs, there’s obviously a compelling argument to be made for two years at a community college and then transferring. Assuming a student lives at home for the community college and lives at school for the four-year school, a family might save $40,000 or more by starting at community college. If that’s your plan, then you should understand what factors are more likely to lead to you ultimately earning your degree.

The study showed that, while higher-income students had higher transfer and degree attainment rates than lower-income students, institutional characteristics at the four-year schools accounted for far greater differences in degree attainment.

Specifically, public universities had the highest degree attainment rates, at 42%, compared with 31% for private non-profits universities and 8% for for-profit schools. Among private non-profits, more selective schools granted degrees to transfer students at higher rates than did the less selective schools.

States also play a role in student success: while the national average rate for transfers to earn four-year degrees at public schools was 42%, degree completion rates ranged from a high of 55% in Washington to a low of 6% in Alaska. The study indicates that a coordinated approach between community colleges and public universities helps: all but one of the top 10 states for degree attainment also had above average transfer rates.

You can’t control what state you’re in, but you might be able to apply some of the study’s lessons to your own situation. Interestingly, the study found no connection between transfer “policies” and transfer outcomes. Instead, the authors point out that policy efficacy depends on implementation: “Institutional practices– not just institutional characteristics– matter… The variation among individual institutions with similar characteristics (e.g., urban colleges) was generally greater than the variation between types of institutions.” In this case, this means that you should find out what resources the specific college you’re considering offers to facilitate and promote transfers to four-year colleges and what their actual transfer rates are, as well as what the four-year college(s) to which you intend to transfer will do to facilitate your transfer and success.

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