A recent article by Alia Wong in The Atlantic asked, “Where Are All the High-School Grads Going?” Despite the fact that more students are getting their high-school diplomas than ever before, the latest data shows that community college enrollment has decreased for the fourth straight year, despite significant increases in federal aid for students who can’t afford tuition.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.7 percent in fall 2015 from the previous fall. But enrollments decreased 2.4 percent among two-year public institutions. By comparison, enrollments increased 0.4 percent among four-year public institutions.
In other words, the community college enrollment decline isn’t temporary, but the number of students enrolled in a four-year college or university has actually increased slightly. This offers a clear path to community college leaders who want to reverse the decline.
Last year, community colleges across America helped their students save $20 billion dollars in tuition on their way to a bachelor’s degree. The key to reversing the four-year decline in community college enrollment is clearing a path for community college students to earn a bachelor’s degree by tackling the most important factor that will impact their decision – credit transfer.
Even if students haven’t read the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) statistical analysis report entitled, “Transferability of Postsecondary Credit Following Student Transfer or Coenrollment,” they appear to be aware of its findings: Although 1.4 million students transferred from public 2-year institutions, only 19.1 million of their 30.0 million credits transferred with them.
And according to research by doctoral candidate David B. Monaghan (Sociology) and distinguished professor Paul Attewell (Sociology, Urban Education) of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the inability to transfer credits, more than a lack of preparation or financial aid, is a key obstacle to graduation for students who move from a two-year to a four-year college. Their research revealed: “the greater the loss, the lower the chances of completing a BA.”
Their research, “The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree,” also found that students who began their postsecondary education at a community college and successfully transfer to a four-year college had BA graduation rates equal to similar students who began at four-year colleges. That rate could actually increase – from 46 percent to 54 percent – if not for the loss of academic credits when students transfer, the study’s authors said.
Attewell and Monaghan found that students who began their postsecondary education at a community college were indeed less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than otherwise similar undergraduates who began at a four-year school. However, contrary to an earlier generation of research, there were no significant differences in BA completion rates between those students who started at a community college and successfully transferred and their peers who began at four-year schools.
Attewell and Monaghan identified restrictive credit transfer policies – and not a lack of academic preparation, an emphasis on vocational training, or a lack of financial aid – as the reason for the gap in BA attainment between otherwise similar undergraduates who entered community colleges and their four-year counterparts.
“Loss of credits is a tax on transfer students,” Monaghan said. “Policymakers should be pushing both community colleges and four-year institutions to address it. Community colleges should be encouraged to invest more in transfer counseling services for their students, and more four-year institutions need to develop processes for facilitating, not hindering, credit transfer for academically qualified students,” he added.
Attewell and Monaghan found that:
- Only 58 percent of 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 remaining 28 percent lose between 10 percent and 89 percent of their credits.
Even after controlling for college GPA and credits earned, students who can transfer most of their credits are more likely to complete a BA than those who cannot.
- Students who have all or almost all their credits transferred are 2.5 times more likely to earn a BA than students with less than half their credits transferred.
- Students who get between half and 89 percent of their credits accepted have a 74 percent higher chance of earning a BA.
The implication is that students who are able to transfer all or most of their community college credits are more likely to graduate than peers who started their postsecondary education at a four-year school.
Some states, such as New Jersey, mandate that all for-credit courses earned in state community colleges must count toward BA graduation after transfer to a state four-year college. Modeling a “what if” scenario for this policy in all states, Attewell and Monaghan project that BA attainment among community college transfer students would rise to 54 percent from 46 percent.
“This percentage is potentially underestimated,” said Attewell. “The obstacle of losing credits is bigger than we could measure.”
Community colleges enroll about 40 percent of American undergraduates. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has reported that 45 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded to students who have transferred from a community college.
“The community college pipeline to a four-year degree has become huge,” said Monaghan. “However, because of choke points in the transfer process, it is not meeting its full potential.”
So, if community college leaders want to reverse the four-year decline in enrollment at their institutions, then will want to pay more attention to clearing a path for community college students to earn a bachelor’s degree by tackling the most important factor that will impact their decision – credit transfer.
(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)