AAC&U News, January/February 2019
Facts & Figures

Ready to Succeed: Community College Transfer Students at Four-Year Institutions

When community college students transfer to four-year institutions, they bring a variety of benefits to their new campus: a range of life experiences, academic preparation, and diverse perspectives. A new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions, examined data from the National Student Clearinghouse to see which four-year institutions are enrolling community college transfer students and how these students fare at their new schools. Overall, the report found that community college students succeed at even the most selective four-year institutions, but some institutions continue to admit few of these students. Based on these results, the report provides several suggestions for four-year institutions hoping to recruit and support community college transfer students.

Students Entering Four-Year Institutions

  • There were 2,625,010 students overall in the fall 2016 “entering class,” which the report defines as undergraduate students enrolling in a four-year institution who had not previously attended that institution or earned a bachelor’s degree.
  • Of the entering class, 15.3 percent (401,870 students) previously attended a community college (see fig. 1).
  • Nearly all degree-granting community colleges transferred at least one student to a four-year institution, and most (84 percent) sent a student to a selective institution.
  • However, the report found that “community colleges with larger enrollments, situated in more urban areas, and offering honors programs are more likely to transfer students to selective institutions.”
  • According to the report, most community college students do not earn an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year institution, and they typically enroll in their new school within one year of leaving the community college.

Figure 1.

Persistence Report Exhibit 1.jpg

Selective Institutions and Private Institutions Enroll Fewer Students from Community Colleges

  • The more selective a four-year institution is, the less likely it is to enroll students who previously attended a community college. According to the report, “While 21 percent of students enrolling directly from high school enter a selective institution, . . . only 9 percent of students transferring from a community college do the same.”
  • Community college transfer students make up just 5 percent of the student population at the “most competitive” institutions, and just 9.9 percent of students at “highly competitive” institutions. (The report bases its levels of selectivity on the NCES−Barron’s Admissions Competitiveness Index).
  • This is compared to “competitive” and “less competitive” institutions, where these students make up 17.1 percent and 21 percent of the population, respectively (see fig. 2).
  • Most students transferring from community colleges attend public institutions.
  • “Overall 17 percent of the [entering class] at public institutions come from community colleges, compared to 10 percent at private institutions,” the report said. “Public institutions enroll more community college transfer students than private institutions across all selectivity bands.”
  • Cost of attendance and established relationships between community colleges and public four-year institutions are two possible causes for this discrepancy.

Figure 2.

Persistence Report Exhibit 3.jpg

Persisting and Graduating Community College Transfer Students

  • The report found that community college students persist and graduate at all types of four-year institutions. Between 88 percent and 75.5 percent of community college transfer students (depending on the level of selectivity of their institution) were still enrolled at their new institution after one year, and most graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years.
  • In fact, at all levels of competitive and noncompetitive institutions, community college transfer students were more likely to graduate in six years than students transferring from four-year institutions or enrolling from high school (see fig. 3).
  • On average, it took students less than three years to earn a bachelor’s degree at all types of institutions, including those rated “most competitive” (2.6 years), “highly competitive” (2.8 years), “very competitive” (2.8 years), “competitive” (2.9 years), and “less competitive” (2.8 years).

Figure 3. 

Persistence Report Exhibit 21.jpg

Recruiting and Supporting Community College Transfer Students

The report identifies several ways that four-year institutions can recruit community college transfer students and ensure their success.

  • Examine broad goals within mission statements and strategic plans, foster support and awareness among campus constituents, and fundraise for scholarships.
  • Develop partnerships with two-year colleges to identify and recruit students, support students’ goals and self-image, advise students on student course schedules, and coordinate curricula and pedagogy.
  • Orient prospective students to your campus climate through admissions counseling, campus visits, summer programs, and workshops.
  • Support transfer students by revising policies, reinventing orientation, providing financial aid packages, designing social opportunities like cohorts or peer mentoring, advising students about high-impact practices (e.g., internships, service learning, research), and assessing and disaggregating student success data.

Unless otherwise cited, images and information in this report are included by permission of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation from their recent report, Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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