Are Associate Degrees the Key to Transfer Success?

By AACC Staff

Study shows that encouraging students to earn an associate degree before they transfer to a four-year college could significantly improve the likelihood of them earning a bachelor’s degree.

With the price of a traditional four-year college degree approaching stratospheric levels, an increasing number of students and their families are turning to community colleges to help offset rising costs.

It’s hard to dispute the money that students can save by deciding to spend the first year or two at a local community college. What’s less clear is if using a two-year college as a steppingstone to a four-year education hurts a student’s chances of going on to earn that all-important bachelor’s degree.

Changes to advising policies and other environmental factors, such as living on campus and adjusting to life away from home can affect the transition to a more traditional campus. Credit transfer is another issue. A recent study out of City University of New York found the one of 10 community college students who transfer to a four-year college lose all of their previously earned higher education credits in the process.

But, if recent research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University in New York is any indication, there is at least one way to increase the probability that community college transfer students will complete — encourage them to earn their associate degree before they change institutions.

Meeting a need

Though some 80 percent of community college students enroll at a community college with the intention of eventually transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree, research suggests the percentage of students who actually achieve that goal within six years hovers at a paltry 15 percent — this at a time when college completion is a nationwide imperative.

It’s tough to spin that.

But, take a look at what happens when transfer students earn their associate degree before switching institutions: According to the CCRC study, those students are 49 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years than other transfers and 22 percent more likely to earn a degree over six years.

But there’s a problem: According to the study, two-thirds of all U.S. community college transfer students currently leave community college before earning their associate degree. Though some students earn AA degrees retroactively through reverse transfer programs, it’s unclear if those programs have a positive impact on their pursuit of a four-year degree.

Changing the culture

Apart from encouraging transfer students to earn their associate degree, the study’s authors suggest that colleges “guarantee credit transfer for associate degree holders”—so that students have an incentive to earn an associate degree before they leave for a transfer institution.

California’s Associate Degree for Transfer, launched in 2010, is one such program. Designed specifically for students who enroll in community college with the intention to transfer, the program guarantees access to participating colleges in the California State University system.

George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia is another institution that works with community colleges to provide guaranteed admission for students who earn an associate degree and maintain a qualifying 3.0 GPA. That program, which launches in the fall, projects to save students upwards of $15,000 in tuition, allows for the transfer of up to 75 community college credits and enables students to begin earning credits toward their major field of study in their first semester at GMU.

In Florida, community college students who graduate with an associate in the arts are guaranteed transfer into one of 11 participating state universities, provided they meet certain requirements. The same guarantees do not apply to transfer students who fail to earn their AA before leaving the college.

Does your college encourage transfer students to earn an AA degree before moving on to another higher education institution?

AACC Staff

contributed to this report.

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