Why Don’t More Community College Students Transfer to Four-Year Schools?

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Why Don’t More Community College Students Transfer to Four-Year Schools?
Many students enroll in community college with the intent of transferring to a four-year school. Of those who do, many succeed, and yet traditional colleges and universities continue to overlook them. Read on to learn more about why more community college students don’t transfer schools and to receive some tips for making the transfer yourself.

Nearly six million students are enrolled in community college each year, many with the intent of eventually transferring to a traditional four-year university. That transfer is not without challenges, however, as many schools don’t accept all community college credits and transfer acceptance rates remain fairly low. Those who do make the transfer tend to succeed, however, which begs the question why colleges and universities continue to overlook community college students and why more community college students don’t make the transfer.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the statistics for how many community college students move on to four-year colleges and universities. We’ll also explore the data on how well they perform and provide some tips for community college students thinking about making the transfer.

How Many Community College Students Transfer?

As college tuitions costs continue to rise and more families struggle to make ends meet, the number of students who choose to start their college education at community college continues to grow. Community college appeals to many because the tuition is typically more affordable and other costs can be kept low by living at home versus living on campus. Community colleges also offer more flexible scheduling for non-traditional students including single parents and adults returning to school.

According to an article published by the National Student Clearinghouse, about 80% of entering community college students indicate that they want to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, making them likely to transfer to a four-year college at some point. However, only 29% of community college students who started classes in the fall of 2011 went through with transferring to a four-year school within 6 years. Of those who did, 72% transferred to public institutions, 20% to private nonprofit institutions, and 8% to for-profit institutions.

Another report suggests that nearly half of all students enrolled at four-year schools (about 49%) began at a two-year school. What the report focuses on, however, is the fact that selective four-year institutions are less likely to enroll community college students than other institutions. Of the 100 most selective colleges, only 14% of students are transfers and only 5% come from community colleges.

Each year, more than 35,000 community college students enroll at selective colleges and universities. Though this number may seem significant, it is actually quite low. In fact, community college students represent fewer than half of all transfer students at these selective institutions. The more important fact, however, is that these community college students out-perform many of those who enrolled directly from high school or transferred from other four-year institutions.

How Do Community College Transfer Students Perform?

According to Jennifer Glynn, director of research and evaluation at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “students who do successfully transfer from community college to a selective university do quite well and are more likely to graduate.”

It would seem, then, that community college students who transfer to four-year institutions do quite well for themselves. Data shows that they have equal or higher graduation rates as students who enroll directly from high school or transfer from other four-year institutions. They also seem to graduate within a reasonable timeframe, earning their degrees in an average of two and a half years. Glynn notes that, “the vast majority of our community colleges are preparing students that are capable of gaining admission to a selective institution.”

Every community college is different, but more and more are making strides toward preparing their students for life after obtaining a two-year degree or transferring to a four-year university.

In 2011, The Aspen Institute began awarding the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. It is a $1 million prize awarded every two years to recognize community colleges for high achievement and student performance. Being primarily focused on student success, the prize is awarded to institutions with outstanding performance in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and high levels of success for students of color and low-income students.

With more community college students succeeding at four-year universities and the Aspen Prize encouraging community colleges to better serve their students, you might expect to see more students making the transfer. Read on to learn why many community colleges never do.

Why Don’t Some Community College Students Transfer?

Though the majority of students entering community college indicate an intention to transfer or otherwise pursue a bachelor’s degree, fewer than one-third actually transfer within six years. Every student’s experience is unique, but there are some common obstacles that keep some community college students from fulfilling their intent to transfer.

When looking at these statistics, it is important to visit the other side of the issue. Though only 1 in 5 community college students transfer, those who don’t may have tried without success. It is only recently that four-year universities have begun to court transfer students, as they previously believed that accepting transfer students would lower graduation rates. Statistics show, however, that students who start at a four-year school have the same 60% graduation rate as transfer students.

Transfer students tend to take more time to graduate, often because they aren’t enrolled full-time, but obstacles are more likely to be financial than a lack of academic readiness. Some of these obstacles are the same reasons why community college students don’t transfer to a four-year school.

Here are some of the reasons why some community college students don’t transfer:

  1. Obtaining pre-requisite courses can be difficult. Many students who choose community college have the intention of pursuing a bachelor’s degree which typically means transferring to a four-year school. In order to gain acceptance, they’ll need to obtain pre-requisites in their chosen field. For competitive majors like science, engineering, and nursing, there could be a great deal of competition to get into these pre-requisite courses which could push back your transfer date.
  2. Rising tuition costs at traditional schools pose an obstacle. Though community college is more affordable than many four-year universities, many students still end up using federal financial aid. By the time they finish a two-year degree or complete their pre-requisites, that money could be gone. If they have any money left, there may be pressure to complete their degree within a certain timeframe that doesn’t match up with their life at the time.
  3. Transfer requirements are confusing and non-standardized. Many four-year colleges accept transfer students, but there are no set standards. Unless your community college has a partnership with the school of your choice, you may end up losing some of your credits or having to repeat courses after being accepted. Requirements may also be different from one state to another, so be prepared for that.
  4. Students are unprepared for a more rigorous college curriculum. For many community college students, they are the first in their family to pursue higher education or they come from a high school in a low-income area. As such, they may not be prepared for the expectations of students at a four-year university, particularly a selective one. Taking remedial courses and student success courses will be very important for these students prior to transfer.
  5. They may be unable to attend full-time due to financial or family obligations. Some four-year universities prefer full-time versus part-time students, particularly from transfers. Community college appeals particularly to non-traditional students such as single parents and adults returning to school who may need more flexibility than a traditional four-year school can offer. In cases like this, it becomes even more important to choose your transfer school wisely.
  6. Transferring schools may require significant life changes. Many community college students attend their local school. Not only does this save them a great deal of money, but it means that they will continue to enjoy their current support system. Transferring schools may require a significant life change, potentially even moving to a different state. This challenge may be more significant for some students than for others, but it is one worth considering and preparing for.
  7. Some students fear entering at a disadvantage. If you’re pursuing a degree in a competitive field, there may be some validity to the worry that transferring into a four-year school might put you at a disadvantage from students who began their college career at the school. The best thing you can do is make sure you complete your pre-requisites and start a relationship early with professors in your field and your school’s transfer student office.

In addition to these obstacles is the fact that some community colleges simply don’t advise their students properly on what they need to do to prepare for transfer. It is extremely important to choose a major and a transfer destination early in a student’s community college career – if you don’t, you end up taking courses that won’t transfer, wasting both time and money. Community colleges can also help their students by developing partnerships with four-year institutions.

Some of the obstacles mentioned above are outside of the student’s control, but many are not. Read on to learn how to improve your chances of a successful transfer as a community college student.

Tips for Transferring to a Four-Year School

Before enrolling in community college, it is a good idea to have a general plan for the future. If you intend to transfer to a four-year school, you should speak to your advisor to learn what pre-requisites you need and arrange your schedule to complete them within an acceptable timeframe. On top of that, there are other things you can do to improve your chances of success in being accepted as a transfer student and to do well in your new school.

According to some statistics, only 1 in 5 community college students transfer to a four-year institution and 60% of those complete a bachelor’s degree within four years. An additional 12% were still enrolled after four years. Research shows, however, that 71% of community college students who obtain an associate degree before transferring earned their bachelor’s within 4 years of the transfer and 80% of those either graduated or remained enrolled at the time.

Here are some general tips for transferring to a four-year school:

  • Study for your placement exams. Many community colleges require students to take placement exams to determine their proficiency in math and English. If you don’t perform well on the test, you may be required to take remedial courses that don’t offer credit which can push back your transfer date and cost you money. Study for the test so you can perform as well as possible. If you still don’t do well, you can appeal the placement verdict – showing that you have the gumption to do so might be enough to show the school that you have the drive to succeed.
  • Space out your general education credits. Many students front-load their general education requirements, stuffing them all into the first semester or two. What ends up happening is that they earn excess credits that don’t apply to their majors when they’re ready to transfer. Start with a focus and take the general education classes that apply to your major first.
  • Select a major early and develop a plan. If transferring to a four-year school is in your two-year plan, you should hit the ground running when you enter community college. Choose your major early (especially if you’re considering a major that has a lot of pre-requisites such as science, engineering, or nursing). This will help you get a feel for the major so you still have time to switch if you want to or you can start taking classes with credits that will transfer right away.
  • Take advantage of academic advisors. Before you sign up for classes, meet with your academic advisor to start working on a plan. If you have already chosen a major, go to your career transfer office and see if they have a set academic plan for that particular major. If not, work with your guidance counselor to determine the requirements for transfer and start working them into your class schedule.
  • Don’t skip your freshman orientation courses. Most four-year institutions require incoming freshman to take an orientation course and many community colleges offer something similar. It is a class that helps you develop skills in studying and time management that will help you succeed. Studies show that students who take this course are more likely to earn better grades and have a higher grade point average.
  • Visit potential transfer options. If you don’t already know where you intend to transfer, it’s a good idea to check out the options during your first semester. It is common for students to lose 10% to 15% of their credits in transfer, so knowing the transfer requirements before you apply can really benefit you. Take the time to talk with the transfer advisors at each school and some of the professors in your department.
  • Prepare yourself for the cost. Financial obstacles are the most common when it comes to transfer students not completing their degree. Before you transfer, make sure you talk to the school to know what kind of costs you’ll be incurring so you can prepare for them. You should also look into scholarships and financial aid opportunities, as some schools offer options specifically for transfer students.  
  • Choose a school with a high transfer rate. Though there are no guarantees you’ll be accepted, schools with higher transfer rates generally have programs that have been designed to make the pathway easier. The top 15 schools in terms of transfer acceptance rate are:
    • UMD University College
    • San Francisco State University
    • CSU Long Beach
    • CSU Northridge
    • CSU Los Angeles
    • University of Central Florida
    • UC Davis
    • Florida International University
    • Cal Poly Pomona
    • CSU Fullerton
    • San Jose State University
    • University of Houston
    • University of South Florida
    • UCLA
    • San Diego State University
  • Find a school that is partnered with your current college. If you don’t live near any of these schools or they don’t have the program you’re interested in, talk to your community college. Find out if they have partnerships with any schools nearby to make the transfer process easier.

Transferring to a four-year university from community college can provide you with a wealth of benefits, but there are still challenges to consider. Think about your options before you make your choice and, whatever you decide, do it to the fullest. Good luck!


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Many students enroll in community college with the intent of transferring to a four-year school. Of those who do, many succeed, and yet traditional colleges and universities continue to overlook them. Read on to learn more about why more community college students don’t transfer schools and to receive some tips for making the transfer yourself.
Community college is the only option for many students who either can’t afford a traditional four-year university or who need a more flexible school environment. Just because community college is different, however, doesn’t mean that its students matter any less. The Aspen Prize exists to encourage community colleges to do more for their students and to continually strive for improvement.

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Many community college students transfer to four-year institutions. Be prepared to make a swift and easy transfer with these articles. Determine the most transfer-friendly universities, learn why some 4-year schools are limiting transfer students, and get tips on ensuring your credits go with you.