Why are 87% of these community college students not earning a bachelor’s degree?

Over half of all students of color and low-income students start in the two-year sector, according to the Department of Education's report.

Although community college may be regularly associated as an equitable pathway to bachelor’s degrees, wealthier students typically capitalize on the opportunity. As for low-income students, a new report from the Department of Education details how infrequently their college hopes pan out.

Only 13% of Title IV students who start at community colleges ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees within eight years. That comes on the back of nearly 80% of community college students saying they intend to transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees, according to the report.

These poor numbers supplement findings from the National Student Clearinghouse that illustrate upward transfer rates for students from two-year colleges to four-year institutions have been declining since the pandemic.

The report’s authors—Nathan Sotherland, Kevin Stange and Jordan Matsudaira—used data from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to measure pathway performances of two- and four-year institutions. They studied 620,000 Title IV-eligible students from all 50 states who enrolled in a community college as their first postsecondary institution for eight years, beginning in 2014.

Sotherland, Stange and Matsudaira’s call to action are rooted in its support for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds; over half of this cohort starts in the two-year sector, according to the report.

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What went wrong?

A multitude of factors play into why so many low-income students failed to earn a bachelor’s degree during this time period. Findings from the Center for Community College Student Engagement’s (CCCSE) survey of nearly 9,000 students across 40 community colleges illustrate gaps in sufficient advising.

First, 38% of students were not aware of information on their college’s website about how to transfer. For students with a college and degree in mind, 64% had not talked to a staff member or instructor about the transfer application process. Lastly, as many students who said they were most likely to rely on instructors or staff at their desired college for transfer guidance also referred to friends, family or other students for help.

Moreover, students are losing confidence in the efficacy of community college transfer pathways due to credit loss, which are two-year credits that don’t translate to the desired four-year institutions. Some students blame their community college advisors for this, AP News reports.

But as critical as we can be about our institutions not adequately preparing students, there may be factors that were simply outside of stakeholders’ control. The Hechinger Report found that drop-out rates in the wake of the pandemic ballooned.

How can college leaders promote stronger pathway rates for two-year students?

As important as it is for two-year institutions to provide the springboard for two-year underresourced students, the report also recognizes that four-year institutions contribute by providing an accessible destination. Their best bet on adequately connecting with students at two-year colleges is partnerships.

Some colleges are committing to partnerships across state lines. Arizona State University has partnered with Long Beach City College (LBCC) in Long Beach, California. Despite their distance, ASU is launching ASU Local at LBCC’s Liberal Arts Campus. The hub is set to offer one-on-one spaces for students and success coaches to connect and study.

The Education Department report found that the partnership between Tri-County Technical College and Clemson University has the highest transfer rate in the country at 20%.

Questions for leaders to consider

For leaders looking to brainstorm ways to cultivate stronger transfer pathways, here are some points you can spitball, as provided by CCCSE.

  • How do we track and share data with college community members about the students who intend to transfer? Are the data disaggregated?
  • Does our college have designated staff to lead transfer initiatives?
  • How do we encourage and train faculty and staff to talk with students about transfer opportunities?
  • How do we share transfer information on the college website? How do we know if the information on the website is clear and easy to navigate for students?
  • Have transfer pathways been developed for students interested in transferring?
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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