Doug Lederman’s summary of a new report by Di Xu, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Jeffrey Fletcher is well worth reading. The report looks at community college students in Virginia, and tracks their educational and financial outcomes relative to other students several years out.
For those of us who live and breathe this stuff, the report comes as confirmation of things we already knew. But for people who aren’t quite as obsessive, it could be easy to lose some key distinctions and therefore miss the point. So, a few basic truths:
First, a student who transfers “vertically” (meaning, from two-year to four-year) without first completing the two-year degree is less likely to succeed at the bachelor’s level than one who graduates first. The likely cause is credit loss upon transfer. Students who transfer without a degree are subject to course-by-course cherry picking, but students who get the degree often get the entire package accepted. Avoiding credit loss is key to timely completion. Retaking classes costs time and money, and can be profoundly demoralizing.
Second, students who do graduate prior to transfer, and then transfer, complete bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than “native” freshmen. Admittedly, that’s something of a stacked deck; a more revealing comparison would be the associate grads paired against “native” students who had made it through sophomore year. But still, it gives the lie to folks who claim that community college students are somehow tainted or incapable. Four-year colleges would be well-advised to look at transfer students as low-risk ways to fill out upper-level classes.
Third, not every student who completes an associate’s degree actually wants to transfer. Some degrees are terminal, or directly employable. And some of the ones who do elect to go on take some time off first. That’s hardly a sign of institutional failure, though the article implies that it is, and many policy analysts assume that it is. Many nursing grads, for instance, go to work with the ADN, and take some time before going back for the BSN. There’s nothing wrong with that -- for parents, it’s often a really good idea -- but a one-dimensional focus on numbers will mistake that for some sort of system flaw.
After those, the picture starts to get more complicated.
In policy circles, transfer is almost always assumed to be “vertical” -- that is, from two-year to four-year. But on the ground, that’s not how it works. Lateral transfers are far more common than is widely assumed, though they’re almost entirely unstudied in the literature. And reverse transfers, which come in two flavors, tend to get ignored. The trendy new flavor involves the student who transfers vertically prior to graduation, and then sends back some credits to get the associate’s during the junior year. It’s a sort of insurance policy in case life happens before finishing the bachelor’s. But the older and more common flavor is the student who started at the four-year, left, and started over at a two-year. Those, too, are relatively ignored in the literature.
Over the last few years, I’ve been hearing about more students with bachelor’s degrees in hand showing up at cc’s to get associate’s in new fields. They’re career-changers. No, they don’t usually go on to get second bachelor’s degrees, but that’s hardly our fault. They come back to get something employable, get it, and get on with life. That looks bad for our vertical transfer numbers, but it’s success on the ground.
If there’s an enterprising Ed.D. student out there looking for a dissertation topic, I’d suggest comparable studies of lateral or reverse transfer students. We don’t just send transfers; we also receive them. But you wouldn’t know it from the literature.
But that’s for another day. For now, the layperson’s takeaway should be that students who graduate from community college and then transfer do just fine. Because they do, and they do so at much lower cost. We can work on the other details later.