A recent study published in the Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal found many students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions do not earn bachelor’s degrees because of loss of credit. The researchers looked at transcripts of college students across the country and found only 58 percent of transfer students successfully kept more than 90 percent of their credits going into their new institutions. More than a quarter of transfer students lost 10 to 89 percent of their credits, and 14 percent lost almost all of their credits. Students who lost more than half of their credits were significantly less likely to graduate.
About 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States currently attend a public community college, and about 80 percent of them say they intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree. There have always been disparities between the number of students who earn bachelor’s degrees if they start out at a four-year institution and the number who do starting at a community college. Experts have introduced different theories to explain this disparity — like financial aid discrepancies, inadequate academic rigor and excessive vocational emphasis — but this study offers conclusive evidence that the preceding factors have no effect, and that credit is the main culprit.
These findings are crucial at a time when the cost of a college education is rising, and student debt is being labeled a crisis. Attending a community college for two years is a way for low-income students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree to minimize or eliminate the debt they will have after they graduate. But if the inability to transfer credit leaves students having to start from scratch, the community college path is worth nothing. Students may have to stay at their new institutions for more than two years in order to earn all of their credits, and some may not be able to afford to do so.
Earlier this term we endorsed Tennessee Governor Haslam’s proposal to provide two free years of community college to all high school graduates in the state. Proposals like this however, will be less effective if four-year institutions do not accept most of the credits that students earn during their two years at a community college.
One solution to this problem of lost credit would be for four-year institutions to be more flexible with the credits they accept. Another option is for universities to reach out to community college students and inform them of what classes they would need to take at their community colleges in order to satisfy the requirements at the four-year institution.
The University actively engages with community college students interested in transferring. About 700 transfer students are accepted to the University each year, and about half of them come from the Virginia community college system. Doug Hartog, senior associate dean of admissions, said ambassadors from the University “try to visit as many of the schools in the VCCS system as possible each fall … to meet with prospective students and provide information about the application process as well as answer questions about U.Va.”
Douglas Rhoney, a counselor at Northern Virginia Community College, said “The transfer process involves … a keen understanding of options and fidelity to the application and curricular requirements of the intended transfer institution.” Students in NVCC who want to transfer are advised to begin their preparation in their first year.
If both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities provide resources to community college students early on about what they will need to do in order to have a successful transfer experience, the loss of credit could be minimized, while maintaining universities’ expectations of academic rigor. Community colleges are invaluable components of the higher education system. Institutions of higher learning must work together to ensure students can take full advantage of them on their paths toward greater opportunity.