The University Network

Understanding Why So Few Community College Transfer Students Graduate With Bachelor’s Degree

Transfering from a community college to a senior college often comes with a unique set of challenges.

More than 30 percent of U.S. students begin their post-secondary studies at a community college, and while more than eight in 10 students intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 17 percent will have obtained one after six years.

To understand what exactly is hindering so many students from obtaining their goals, three City University of New York (CUNY) researchers have received a $550,000 award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to investigate the difficulties associated with being a community college transfer student within the humanities.

The Mellon Foundation Award will complement a a four-year, $1.4 million grant for transfer research from the Institute of Education Sciences, which began in August 2018.

The study will be carried out by CUNY researchers Alexandra Logue, Chet Jordan and Colin Chellman.

Importance of the study

When Logue served as the chief academic officer for CUNY from 2008-2014, she learned that transferring credits between CUNY colleges had presented a consistent challenge for students over the years.

“This problem fueled the creation of the Pathways initiative in 2013, which significantly enhanced the university’s credit transfer policies,” said Logue. “I later wrote a book on the topic: ‘Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at the City University of New York.”

The Pathways initiative established a new set of general education requirements and guidelines to make transferring between CUNY schools easier and, through this experience, Logue

became aware of the many difficulties associated with being a transfer student.

“It’s an important issue as over 50 percent of the bachelor’s degree recipients in the United States have credits from an institution other than the one from which they graduated,” she explained. “For these reasons, and in partnership with some wonderful collaborators, I applied for and received two grants.”

Logue, now a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at CUNY’s Graduate Center and the principal investigator of the study, will be working alongside the other researchers to understand the leaks in the academic pipeline.

Investigating challenges

In the first year of the three-year Mellon grant period, the researchers will focus on students at Guttman Community College.

“Both the Mellon- and the IES-funded projects will examine qualitative and quantitative data,” Logue explained.

“We will conduct focus groups with students who are interested in majoring in the humanities, as well as conducting quantitative analyses regarding transfer patterns. In the second and third years of that grant, we will expand these investigations to include all seven of CUNY’s community colleges.”

The researchers chose to focus on students in the humanities specifically, because a large number of community college students are enrolled in such courses, and research in this area has been largely under-investigated.

“Very little research on the topic has focused on humanities students, even though there are many such students at community colleges,” said Logue.

“It’s also important to study the transfer pathway because community colleges enroll a disproportionate percentage of students who are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups,” she added.

Oftentimes, Logue explained, students in community colleges face many challenges: the first in their family to attend college, limited financial resources, and not having English as their first language.

“These students, who are already facing many challenges, are disproportionately affected by the challenges that come with attending community colleges,” she said.

The researchers will be investigating ideas such as “transfer melt,” or the occurrence when students are accepted into a bachelor’s degree college but don’t enroll, as well as “transfer shock,” a temporary decrease in GPA seen initially after a student transfers.

Fixing the leaky pipeline

Over the next three years, the researchers hope to identify the major difficulties associated with transferring from a community college, in order to improve the system for struggling students.

Some of the challenges known to affect community college students who are transitioning to a bachelor’s degree program include: inadequate advising, course unavailability, and the loss of some credits as a result of their transfer, or the reclassification of those credits to electives that don’t count toward their major.

“We will be identifying the major leaks in the pipeline and what is causing those leaks,” said Logue.

“Once we have obtained that information, researchers and practitioners will be in a good position to design effective interventions that will assist students in achieving their degree goals.”