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Can Community College Attendance Stem Dropout Rates?

By Corey Murray

Research has demonstrated that it’s more difficult to earn a bachelor’s degree if a student starts at a community college and then transfers to a four-year college. But that isn’t always the case. New findings suggest that some college dropouts would have done better had they attended a community college first.

As editor of the 21st-Century Center, much of my time is spent scouring the Internet for information that community college leaders can use as they think about ways to conduct reforms on campus.

In any given week, I come across probably a dozen stories or facts or statistics that I might consider sharing with you here. With everything I read, it’s rare that I find something so surprising that I have to look twice to believe it.

But that’s what happened recently, when I came across this post on Education By the Numbers, a blog published by The Hechinger Report.

The headline stopped me right away:

“Almost a third of college drop outs would have been more likely to graduate had they started at a two-year college.”


Really? Like a lot of people around here, I am a big proponent of the power and the value of community colleges. Even so, I always thought the numbers were the other way around: Students who start at a four-year college are more likely to graduate from a four-year college than those who start at a two-year college and then transfer to a four-year college — if for no other reason than the very act of transferring is itself a barrier.

You know why: Credits often don’t translate, unforeseen costs force students to drop out and the sheer time it takes to graduate just makes the process all that much tougher.

Recent research bears this out. In late March, a report from researchers at the City University of New York indicated that 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.

As an article in U.S. News & World Report points out, many states have launched initiatives designed to smooth the transfer process. By working directly with four-year institutions, community colleges have sought to cut down on the amount of coursework transfer students have to redo. And special honors programs have attempted to broker the transfer process by aligning standards at two- and four-year colleges.

But, for the most part, the challenge remains.

Hechinger points to a 2009 study from researchers Bridget Terry Long of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Michael Kurlaender of the University of California, Davis. What they found was that, yes, students who transferred to a four-year college after starting at a community college were 14.5 percent less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree than students who started at a four-year college.

In January, the American Institutes for Research released a Calder working paper written by Erin Dunlop Velez [PDF]. That paper essentially confirmed Long and Kurlaender’s 2009 findings.
According to Dunlop Velez, “About 70% of four-year college drop-outs have a higher predicted probability of success beginning at a four-year college.”

But here, as Hechinger points out, is where it gets interesting: That wasn’t necessarily the case for the other 30 percent. “Their predicted probability of bachelor’s degree attainment would have been higher had they started at a two-year college,” writes Velez. This proved especially true for students who were first-generation college goers and those who were minorities.

Given that students stand to save a significant amount of money by attending a community college for two years before transferring to a four-year college, Dunlop Velez submits her findings as evidence that students and families should consider their individual circumstances when deciding which type of institution to attend after high school.

What do you think? Do these findings surprise you?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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