The Community College Route to the Bachelor's Degree

Issue/Topic: Postsecondary Success--Completion; Postsecondary Academic Affairs--Transfer/Articulation
Author(s): Monaghan, David; Attewell, Paul
Organization(s): Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Publication: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Published On: 3/18/2014

It is well established that students who begin post-secondary education at a community college are less likely to earn a bachelor's degree than otherwise similar students who begin at 4-year schools but there is less consensus over the mechanisms generating this disparity.

To understand the factors that account for the gap in BA attainment between students who start at a 4-year college and those who transfer from a community college

After controlling for college GPA and credits earned, those students who can transfer most of their credits are more likely to earn an B.A. Additionally:
  • Adjusting for differences in observed background characteristics, undergraduates who started their higher education at a community college had a BA graduation rate that was nearly 17 percentage points lower than otherwise similar students who began at a 4-year college.

  • Substantial differences in the academic progress of students who began at a 4-year versus 2-year generally do not appear until about the third year of entry.

  • The probability of transfer rose markedly as community college students accumulated more credits at their 2-year institution. However, only about 60% of students who earned roughly 60 credits transferred to a 4-year college.

  • 14% of transfer students lost more than 90% of their community college credits, 58% lost less than 10% and 28% of students lost between 10% and 89% of their credits.

  • Students who had all or almost all of their credits transferred were more than 2.5 times more likely to graduate than students with less than half their credits transferred. Those with half to 89% of their credits accepted had a 74% higher odds.

  • On average, community college students who do successfully transfer are just as likely to complete a degree as similar students who start at a 4-year institution.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
The most consequential barrier to 4-year degree attainment is the lack of transfer among students who have completed 60 credits and the loss of credits for those who do transfer. Efficient and effective transfer policy could lessen those barriers.

Research Design:
Longitudinal study

A nationally representative cohort of 13,000 first-time freshmen tracked for 6 years after their initial entry into college in 2004

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Study participants were interviewed at three points in time: toward the end of their first year of college, and then 3 and 6 years after first entry. Each student reported every college attended during this period, both dual enrollment and transfers from one college to another. Analysis used student transcript data to track student progress semester by semester.


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