Why Community Colleges Can’t Solve America’s Higher Ed Woes

Low transfer rates to universities and high rates of rejection from prestigious schools hamper students’ dreams of a degree.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Feb 4, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

As the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s higher ed agenda—and a traditional, budget-friendly alternative to spiraling tuition at four-year schools—community colleges have morphed from educational afterthought to a key component in the nation’s plans to lead the world in college graduates by 2020.

Yet as more college-bound students, especially poor and minority youths, follow the recommendation to use two-year colleges as a bridge from high school to university, a pair of studies show a surprising percentage don’t get a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in a two-year school, exposing serious flaws in the transfer system. Whether low-income students move on to a four-year school—and the higher earning power that comes with a diploma—also depends on whether an elite school, such as Harvard or Princeton, decides to take them, even if they qualify for admission.

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“This is what we find in higher education; this is why we really have to fix this transfer path” between community colleges and four-year institutions, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University and a coauthor of the study, Tracking Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees.

According to the report, 80 percent of new community college students intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. But of the 720,000 degree-seeking students the study tracked, starting in 2007, only 14 percent transferred to a four-year university within six years of entry.

Of the community college students who did transfer, just 42 percent completed a bachelor’s degree, far below the 60 percent of students who started at public four-year colleges and got their degree, according to the report. In most states, low-income students—who are more likely to start at community colleges—do worse than their higher-income peers when it comes to transferring to a four-year school.

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With origins dating to the 1800s, community colleges educate nearly half of the nation’s 24 million college students at a tuition that’s about a third of the roughly $9,000 a year it costs for a bachelor’s degree. Besides career and vocational training, the mission of the community-based two-year schools includes preparing high school graduates to move on to a four-year school and continue their education.

Yet community colleges teach twice as many low-income students as high-income students, and more than 60 percent of community college students need some form of remedial education, at a cost of $2 billion a year.

“Transfer challenges disproportionately impact students who are already at a disadvantage,” Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, said in a statement accompanying the study. “Knocking down barriers to transfer will help narrow our nation’s opportunity gap by boosting the rate at which low-income students and students of color earn bachelor’s degrees. At the same time, it will help create a better educated workforce—planting the seeds for sustained economic growth.”

Part of the issue, Jenkins says, is that students don’t always have guidance or a clear idea of what it takes to transfer out of a community college or even plan how to get what they need from a two-year school before they leave. Lacking an established path from community college to a four-year school, students typically end up taking classes they don’t need—a waste of money and credits—or needing classes they haven’t taken to get into the four-year school.

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At the same time, the same colleges and universities that take steps to ease the transition from high school to college aren’t very good at doing the same for transfer students, Jenkins says. The locations with the highest success rate of community college transfers often have “seamless” cooperation between two- and four-year schools, giving students a clear understanding of what it takes to transfer.

“You see practices you typically don’t see” in other places, Jenkins says. “There’s much more collaboration on the community college’s part—a big focus on instructional quality and rigor. They can’t just have Mickey Mouse math, science, and writing courses. They have to be good quality.”

Meanwhile, a separate report from The Edvance Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit, studied 414 private colleges and found that many of the nation’s elite institutions aren’t eager to embrace community-college transfers.

“Only a handful of community colleges feed the pool of transfers to private colleges,” the Edvance report said. Evaluators “are inconsistent in their application of academic admission standards” when reviewing community college applicants.”

Yale University, for example, says it receives more than 1,000 transfer applications for only 20 to 30 slots. Meanwhile, Stanford University admits a similar number of transfer students and says that the admit rate tends to be between 1 and 4 percent.

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Like the CCRC report, the Edvance Foundation study recommends partnerships between community colleges and private schools, enhancing community-college coursework, and streamlining the transfer process. But it also recommends that private schools create programs to help identify, mentor, and guide promising community-college students into the admissions pipeline—similar to the Cooke Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative, a pilot program designed to help high-achieving, low- to moderate-income community college students transfer successfully to four-year college programs.

“By making the transfer process less complicated and providing appropriate support along the way, we can increase the flow of community college graduates to four-year private colleges and universities and enhance students’ prospects for success—in school, in work, and in life,” Brian C. Mitchell, Edvance Foundation chairman and former Bucknell University president, said in a statement.