Community Colleges and Baccalaureate Completion – Actionable New Research

One of basic facts of higher education completion is that students who start at community colleges are less likely to graduate from a four-year institution than students who start at a four-year institutions. It is a constant source of concern for all of us who work at the community college level. David P. Monaghan and Paul Attewell set out to find out the reasons why. It is an important question. Community colleges are much less expensive than four-year institutions. But if community colleges disadvantage students who plan on a four-year degree, the savings may come at too great a cost.

After studying transcripts and student records across institutions and employing sophisticated statistical tools, Monaghan and Attewell make some powerful claims in a recently released report, The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree. (It is an open access report well worth your time). The researchers found that once background is controlled statistically, there is no substantial differences in the speed of academic progress between students who start higher education at a community college and those that start at four-year college. In other words, student success in the first and second year of studies is relatively constant if we control for key student factors (like level of academic preparation). The divergence in student completion rates takes place in the junior year.

What happens in the third year? The more credits lost in transfer, the less likely a community college student will succeed with a bachelor’s degree. Monaghan and Attewell reverse testes this claim, too, wondering what would the projected graduation rate for community college students who did not lose credits. The result was a 9% increase in graduation rates. Some states and systems already have established regulations that force receiving four-year institutions to accept community college credit. One can easily imagine more similar such regulations on the horizon.

The key choke points in the pipeline for community college students success who seek a four-year degree are remedial/developmental education, difficulty in transferring once completing 60 credits, and the loss of community college credit once they have arrived at a four-year institution. Remedial education, as is well documented, is a major issue unto itself. As for the other two issues, more work and attention is needed.

As I read it, the study emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing community college education as a bridge between systems. It makes us think of problems in student completion as functions of a larger whole. Faster and more robust on and off ramps are essential if we are to speed students toward completion. With dual credit, dual enrollment, and early college programs increasingly dotting the national landscape, much good work is already taking place between the high school world and higher education. The challenge of college readiness has focused many smart people and organizations. But focusing on student movement from high school to college is not enough. We need to keep in mind the whole higher education system in order to prioritize our efforts effectively. What changes are within our control that will improve student success?

It is imperative that higher education consider the movement of community college students within the higher education environment as our shared priority. All of us involved in the business of student transfer need to get our pathways and processes in order and student friendly. Many institutions see this as essential work, but not all. I believe that it is more than an institutional issue, it is a higher education issue. More and more students are obtaining their education at multile institutions. If Monaghan and Attewell are correct, poor articulation agreements and internal processes are impeding the success of many able and willing students. We can, should, and will do better.

David Potash

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