ON THE AGENDA | JANUARY 28TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Tracking Community College Outcomes Can Help Get More Students to the Finish

The vast majority of students who enroll in a community college plan to one day earn a bachelor’s degree. Most never make it. How can we help?

If you've ever made the questionable decision – as I have – to read comments on an article about student debt, you've probably seen a common argument. Why don't students just start at a community college and transfer to a four-year school for their bachelor's? They'll save money and catch up on any preparation they're lacking.

On the surface, this argument makes sense. Two years at a community college, plus two years at a four-year university equals four years to an affordable college degree. Easy.

Unfortunately, a solution to rising student debt, a lack of student preparedness or low completion rates will not be that simple. Two plus two rarely equals four. And a new study proves it.

Out of the 1.7 million students who start at a community college each year, just 14 percent transfer to a four-year school and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This finding comes from a ground-breaking report released last week by our friends and partners at the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse. (We worked with these organizations to put together a slidedeck summarizing the report findings. Download the slidedeck here.)

The report examines community college student outcomes in nearly every state in the country. Even in states with the best track records, only about one in five community college students transfer and graduate within six years of enrolling. In states at the bottom of the list, transfer and graduation rates are in the single digits.

As many as 80 percent of students who start at a community college say they plan to get a bachelor's degree or higher. These low bachelor's attainment rates are therefore not the result of a student body content with a few years of community college.

Instead, these outcomes are largely the result of a broken transfer system. If we increased the transfer rate among all new students at community colleges by 10 percentage points, there could be about 70,000 more students earning bachelor’s degrees every year.

Fixing the transfer system will require effort from both community colleges and four-year schools. What community colleges and four-year universities both do to teach and support their students will make the most difference for student outcomes.

The report, funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is the first phase in a major initiative to tackle low transfer rates and to provide colleges with the tools they need to improve. The report recommends a comprehensive set of five measures as a new way to track which institutions are effective in serving transfer students and which states have a robust transfer pipeline from community colleges to four-year schools.

While we didn't contribute to this report, we are very excited to be part of the initiative moving forward. Building on this research, we'll collaborate with CCRC and the Aspen Institute to develop a “playbook” for creating effective transfer partnerships for community college and university leaders. It is scheduled to be released in spring 2016.

Interested in receiving the toolkit when it's released? Be sure you're registered for our email list. And in the meantime, check out key findings by downloading this summary, or read the full report online.


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