Why many community college students don't graduate

While students who start at community colleges are less likely to obtain a bachelor's degree, there is little agreement about why this happens. Experts have suggested a variety of possible reasons, including inadequate academic rigor at community colleges, lowered student expectations, poor financial aid and a focus on vocational courses.

But a recent study published this week in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal detected few differences in academic progress between students who start at four-year schools and those who begin at community colleges.

The researchers, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said the biggest obstacle to community college students in going on to obtain a bachelor's degree is lost college credits. The greater the credit loss, the less likely the student will earn a bachelor's degree.

When examining transcripts that represented a national cross-section of college students, David Monaghan, a doctoral student, and Paul Attewell, a professor of education, discovered that roughly 14 percent of transfer students had to start nearly from scratch. Their new institutions accepted fewer than 10 percent of their community college credits. Only 58 percent of transfer students were able to move more than 90 percent of their credits to four-year institutions. The remaining 28 percent of transfer students lost between 10 percent and 89 percent of their credits.

Students who managed to get almost all of their credits to transfer were 2.5 times more likely to earn a four-year degree than their peers who lost more than half of their credits, according to the report, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Interestingly enough, community college students who do manage to transfer to four-year institutions are just as likely to earn a bachelor's degree as students who start at a four-year school. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 60 percent of community college transfer students earn a bachelor's degree within four years of transferring.

The researchers discounted popular explanations for the grad-rate disparity. For instance, an analysis of financial aid between transfer students and students who started at four-year schools showed no statistical difference in aid when controlling for age, family income and other factors.

The academics' results also discounted other common explanations for lagging grad rates, including an emphasis on vocational courses and inadequate academic rigor.

Roughly 40 percent of America's undergraduates attend public community colleges. In an authoritative study conducted in 2012, 81 percent of community college students said that earning a bachelor's degree was their ultimate goal. Tackling the academic credit issue is critical if the nation is going to make progress in its college completion push.

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