NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Improving Transfer Rates from Community Colleges

July 23, 2015

In January, President Barack Obama announced his plan to make two years of community college free for students with the goal of increasing educational attainment among Americans.

One possible outcome of this policy could be that students would choose to enroll in a community college in order to take advantage of the subsidy. This may negatively impact some students if outcomes are worse for those who begin at two-year rather than four-year colleges, as some research suggests is the case. Though many students enter community colleges stating that they intend to transfer to a four-year university, only approximately 20 percent ever do.

Some states have tried to increase transfer rates by developing common course numbering systems, while others have developed agreements that guarantee the transfer of particular course credits or sets of courses. Increasingly states have adopted policies that guarantee transfer with junior status to community college students who complete their associate degree before transferring.

Policies that guarantee transfer for students who complete a common core of courses or an associate degree do very little to address the complexity and lack of structure that plague community colleges. The best agreement to simplify the pathway between public two-year colleges and four-years is common course numbering. A student enrolled in a system with common course numbering can compare his or her course plan at the community college with the degree requirements at their target four-year institution. Therefore it seems plausible that students enrolled in states with common course numbering policies may be more likely to transfer than those in other states.

Reducing the cost of community college will only increase educational attainment if coupled with policies that improve student outcomes such as persistence, degree completion, and transfer. Policies that address the problems of complexity and lack of structure at community colleges have clear potential to improve student outcomes.

Source: Adela Soliz, "Increasing Community College Student Transfer Rates," Brookings Institution, July 16, 2015.


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