Community Colleges Can Pave the Way to Elite Universities, Study Finds



Students know that graduating from a selective college or university will give them a significant leg up in the job market. 

Getting into such an institution right out of high school, however, is no simple task. More than anything, students need a high GPA and a good score on their ACT or SAT.  

But a recent study highlights another way for students to make it into a selective institution — by transferring from a community college. 

The study

The researchers evaluated 7,110 college students across the United States. They found that those who transferred from community college were 24 percent more likely to attend a selective university than similarly-situated students who went on to a four-year institution straight from high school. 

According to the researchers, the option of transferring from a community college to a more selective university is particularly important for students who are minority, low-income and academically underprepared for higher education, because students from these groups are less likely to be admitted to or enroll at a selective university. 

“Community colleges can open the door to selective universities,” the authors of the study wrote in an article in The Conversation

But is transferring from community college really the best idea?

Especially for those who are worried about paying for a four-year institution or aren’t academically prepared to attend one, transferring from community college increasingly seems like a good route. 

First off, tuition at community colleges is significantly cheaper than it is at four-year institutions. And in many states, community college is now free

Secondly, for those who struggled academically in high school, community college gives them a chance to take remedial classes and become a more attractive applicant. Luckily, high school grades and test scores are not as important for transfer students as they are for those who apply to a selective institution while still in high school. 

However, transferring schools is not always a smooth process. 

Sometimes, credits accumulated while enrolled in community college don’t carry over to a four-year institution, which extends the amount of time and money students have to spend on their education and delays their entrance to the workforce. 

To combat this, 30 states have implemented “articulation agreements” that force four-year institutions to accept all credits and associate degrees earned at community colleges. 

And for students attending community colleges in those 30 states, the authors of the study recommend not transferring until they’ve earned their associate degree. 

“We see significant value in obtaining an associate degree before transferring, particularly for students in states with articulation agreements,” said Justin Ortagus, co-author of the study and assistant professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Florida. 

On average, the students in the study transferred after one or two years at community college, Ortagus said. 

And although he thinks it’s typically a good idea for students to earn an associate degree before transferring, he cautions students against taking too much time to graduate. The longer students have to wait to enter the workforce, the more they fall behind. And that could result in wage penalties as they start their career. 

On average, it takes students who transfer from community college to a four-year institution about three months longer to graduate than those who start at a four-year institution. And unfortunately, community college transfer students are 37 percent less likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees. 

Another concern is that although community colleges educate more than half of the low-income college students in the United States, few of these students end up transferring to a selective four-year institution. 

To change this, Ortagus says that selective universities can prioritize need-based aid for low-income students transfer students. 

“Low-income students, whether they transfer from a community college or otherwise, are debt-averse,” said Ortagus. “By prioritizing need-based aid in a substantial way, selective universities can encourage low-income student enrollment. Many need-based aid programs that are designed to foster low-income student enrollment are focused primarily on students enrolling directly out of high school, and we believe targeted need-based aid for low-income transfer students would help to increase the share of low-income students at selective universities.”

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