Dual reports show just one in six community college students earn a bachelor’s degree

Nearly 80% of community college students hope to go on to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree, but few students are achieving that goal, according to two new reports released this week by the Community College Research Center (CCRC), the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. One report covers community colleges, while the second looks at four-year institutions.

The reports—the first of their kind to present state-by-state transfer rates and outcomes by student subgroup—used National Student Clearinghouse data to analyze how community colleges and four-year universities helped students who started community college in Fall 2015 to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree.

Researchers found that one-third (33%) of community college students transferred to four-year institutions within six year, and only half of those transfer students (48%) completed a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering community college. As a result, just 16% of first-time community college students evaluated in the report eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in six years, a small improvement over the 14% completion rate from the 2007 community college cohort. Although some states had higher graduation rates than others, none of them had bachelor’s degree completion rates among community college students above 21%. 

Low completion rates highlight need for improvement

Community college transfer students at four-year institutions are “highly motivated,” Tatiana Velasco, lead author of the reports and research associate at the CCRC, tells Inside Higher Ed. Eighty-one percent of community college students who transfer to four-year colleges have completed their second year of college, compared to 66% students who transfer from other four-year institutions, according to the reports

However, the six-year bachelor’s degree attainment rate, especially among underrepresented students, signals obstacles these students are facing. Bachelor’s degree attainment among community college students was lower than average for male (14%), Latine (13%), low-income (11%), Black (9%), and older (9%) students (defined as ages 25 and up).

The type of institutions transfer students attend is also a key factor. More than half (57%) of transfer students at public four-year colleges earned their bachelor’s degree in four years, compared to 44% of transfers at private nonprofit universities, 23% at for-profit colleges, and 25% at mainly online institutions. Black community college transfers are twice as likely as their peers to enroll in for-profit colleges and mainly online institutions, where bachelor’s-attainment rates after transfer are lowest.

Notably, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) and Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander–Serving Institutions, many of which are moderately or nonselective, enroll a large share of transfer students but graduate community college transfer students at relatively high rates (58% and 65%, compared to 55% across all institutions).


To boost transfer and college completion rates, the reports suggest an expansion of dual enrollment opportunities, as transfer outcomes were stronger for dual enrollment students than for students who started community college without taking dual enrollment courses. College and state leaders should also closely track transfer student performance, measure and disaggregate that data, and compare it to national performance and to that of other institutions to improve their transfer outcomes.

Researchers also recommend encouraging students to earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution and to transfer to more selective public and private nonprofit four-year institutions rather than online and for-profit colleges that serve transfer students poorly. Institutions should also focus on helping students complete their degree within four years.

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