Report: 1 in 10 Community College Transfers Lose Nearly All Course Credits

A loss of credit, not a lack of academic preparedness, negatively impacts community college students' chances of earning four-year degrees.

Group of college students in the university amphitheatre, they are sitting and listening to a lecture. The focus is on the young man in white t-shirt.

Many community college students lose course credit when transferring to four-year schools and have to spend time and money to repeat courses.

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Although many students enroll in community colleges as a more affordable gateway to lead to a bachelor's degree, more than 10 percent of community college students lose nearly all of their course credits and must essentially start over after transferring, according to new research from the City University of New York. That costs precious time and money for aspiring students.

While past research has shown that community college students have a significantly lower change of attaining a bachelor's degree than those who start directly at four-year schools, the root of the problem isn't in something community colleges are or are not doing to prepare students, says David Monaghan, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center of CUNY and co-author of the study, released Wednesday. Rather, he says, many students hit a roadblock somewhere in the transfer process. 

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"We find, among other things, that students lose a lot of credits when they transfer to four-year schools and that this has a negative impact on their probability of completing their four-year degree," Monaghan says.

The study, which Monaghan says was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, compares community college students to those who directly enter four-year colleges and have similar characteristics and backgrounds, in order to control for outside factors that could influence dropout rates among community college students. When controlling for those factors, Monaghan says the dropout rates aren't very different between community college and four-year college students. 

About 40 percent of all of America's undergraduate students are enrolled at community colleges, and a large majority (81 percent) say their ultimate goal is to earn at least a bachelor's degree. Monaghan says for a number of reasons, community colleges are a more affordable route to a four-year degree. In-state tuition and fees at community colleges on average run $2,963 per year, compared with $8,549 at public four-year colleges, the report says, for example. Community college students also save thousands of dollars on room and board, which on average costs about $8,500 at public, four-year colleges.

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But often times, students who transfer from community colleges to four-year schools aren't able to transfer all of their credits and must repeat courses. Monaghan and his colleague Paul Attewell, a CUNY professor, found that for 14 percent of transfer students, fewer than 10 percent of their credits were accepted by their new institution. Another 28 percent of transfers were able to keep between 10 percent and 89 percent of their credits, and just 58 percent were able to keep 90 percent or more of the credits they earned while in community college. 

But even that number may be an underestimation, Monaghan says, because it does not include those students who receive "empty credits" upon transferring – they can carry over all-purpose credits, but they don't count toward a specific course or graduation requirement. 

What's more, the researchers found that students who were able to keep all or almost all of their credits were 2.5 times more likely to earn a bachelor's degree than those with less than half of their credits transferred. If community college students were guaranteed to not lose any credits when they transferred, the bachelor's degree attainment rates for that group of students would be 54 percent, rather than 45 percent, the study finds. 

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Several states – such as Wyoming, Delaware, California, Washington and Rhode Island – have taken steps to ensure a smoother transfer process between state community colleges and local four-year institutions. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors, for example, last month signed an agreement with the State Board of Community Colleges to ease the transfer process for students without losing class credits, The Charlotte Observer reported.

But many students still face challenges when attempting to transfer across state lines, Monaghan says. 

"If there’s a need for policy change that’s indicated by the study, it’s not somehow penalizing community colleges, or looking at them as doing something particularly wrong academically," Monaghan says. "It’s looking at this choke point of transfer and seeing what can be done to make that more doable."