Good news and bad on community college transfers 

COMMUNITY COLLEGES are often pegged as the workhorses of the higher education system. The two-year colleges cater overwhelmingly to first-generation college students and draw heavily from lower-income households. Not only are the state’s 15 public community colleges places students look to for two-year associate’s degrees that can help them get a foothold on the ladder of economic opportunity, they are often the first step students take on a path they hope will eventually lead to a four-year bachelor’s degree. 

The state has redoubled efforts in recent years to make for a smoother transition from community college to four-year institutions. Are those initiatives paying off? 

Yes and no. 

That’s the mixed finding of a new study looking at the state’s recent experience with community college transfers. The study, carried out by researchers at Harvard and Brown universities in conjunction with the state K-12 and higher education departments, found that state policies aimed at easing that transition have coincided with an increase in transfers to four-year colleges and universities among those from relatively higher-income households, but no change in the share of students from lower-income families making that transition. 

“It’s a combination of good news and troubling patterns,” said Richard Murnane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who led the research, which had support from the Annenberg Institute at Brown and MassINC, the public policy think tank that publishes CommonWealth

The study looked at the outcomes for 10 cohorts of Massachusetts high school graduates who enrolled in community colleges, from 2005 to 2014. Stark differences emerged when the analysis considered whether students had been eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch as 10th graders, a status for which maximum household income for a family of four was $41,000 in 2011-12, the last school year in which students in the study were in 10th grade. 

For the two-thirds of community college students with household income above that level, the research found increased transfer rates over the 10-year study period among White, Black, Latinx, and Asian students. The increases ranged from 6 to 8 percentage points, with the rates for the 2014 cohort ranging from a low of 34 percent for higher-income Latinx students to 46 percent for higher-income Asian students. For low-income students, however, there was no change, with transfer rates remaining below 30 percent for all four populations. 

The study could not answer directly the reasons for the differences, but Murnane speculated that they include things like work obligations of lower-income students to help with family finances and poorer academic preparation that leaves many students taking remedial, non-credit-bearing courses when they start community college.

The transfer process has long been hobbled by the lack of clear alignment between courses at two- and four-year colleges, with some community college credits not being accepted at four-year schools. But the study period coincided with concerted efforts by the state’s higher education system to better facilitate the transfer process. That included development of the MassTransfer Course and Equivalency database, which makes clear for students – and their advisors at community colleges – which community college courses will apply toward a bachelor’s degree in various majors at public four-year colleges and universities. 

Among those community college students who did transfer, the graduation rate from four-year colleges increased significantly, from 51 percent to 63 percent, over the 10-year study period. 

The share of community college students who are from low-income families increased markedly during this time – from 21 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2014. That demographic shift led to no increase in the overall transfer rate over the 10-year period. The average math MCAS scores of entering community college students also declined sharply over this period. Higher education leaders say the population shift underscores the need for more robust support services for lower-income students, whose transfer rates have lagged those of their higher-income peers.  

These demographic shifts are “in one sense praiseworthy,” because they show that “Massachusetts community colleges are serving kids who in prior cohorts wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Murnane. “On the other hand, it means substantial challenges for the community colleges, both because these young people are not as prepared academically and because they face more challenges outside college that interfere with their ability to focus on school.” 

The study also showed pronounced gender gaps, with higher transfer rates among female students than male students of all races. 

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, said the study points to real gains from the work done over the last decade to better facilitate the transfer process. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m encouraged,” he said of the findings. “It also highlights that we have to go farther faster if we want low-income students and students of color to rise more than they have.” 

Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, said that means providing a lot more resources to students who are being left behind and taking more steps to align the courses of the two- and four-year systems. 

The reform that has taken place “is really reform around the edges. It’s straightening out a system that we know is not really agile,” she said. “We would like to say that we are all student centered in the way we design these systems but we really aren’t.” 

MICHAEL JONAS

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STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker is asking the federal government for “urgent assistance” to help with resettlement efforts for thousands of migrants who have arrived in Massachusetts over the last several months. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

A limited liability corporation, whose owners are shrouded from public view, has scooped up close to $5 million in rental property in New Bedford in recent years, leaving tenants in the dark about who their actual landlord is. (New Bedford Light

Natick officials defend the municipality’s handling of sexual assault allegations against a police officer. (WBUR)

A member of the Marblehead School Committee resigns and the other four members split on whether to replace her. The split means voters will elect a replacement at the next election. (Daily Item)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Calls in Massachusetts to a new 988 national suicide hotline have jumped 38 percent. (WBUR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Capitol Police security cameras captured the intruder breaking into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home, where her husband was attacked, but no one was watching the live feed from that camera – one of some 1,800 the department monitors around the Capitol and at other high-security locations like the Speaker’s home – at the time. (Washington Post

ELECTIONS

The Globe endorses Democratic challenger Paul Heroux, currently the mayor of Attleboro, against long-term Republican Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson. 

The candidates for state auditor weren’t always what they now claim to be, with Republican Anthony Amore espousing more hard-right views than the “Baker moderate” he’s now running as, while Democrat Diana DiZoglio was a more conservative lawmaker when she entered the Legislature a decade ago than she now presents herself as. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth reported last week on DiZoglio’s vote with House conservatives on a transgender rights amendment in 2013 and the support pro-choice Planned Parenthood gave to a primary challenger she faced in 2014. 

Marcus Vaughn, a Black Republican candidate for an open House of Representatives seat, said the chairman of the Wrentham Town Democratic Committee asked him how he could be a Republican – given his race – as he was preparing to enter a building for a debate last week with his Democratic opponent, Norfolk select board member Kevin Kalkut. (Boston Herald)

Democratic governor’s councilor Paul DePalo, who represents the Worcester County area, is facing a challenge from Republican Gary Galonek. (Telegram & Gazette)

UMass Dartmouth will now host a polling station, a move aimed at getting more college students to vote. (Standard-Times)

Gubernatorial candidates Democrat Maura Healey and Republican Geoff Diehl both report their best fundraising months of the campaign, with Healey raising far more money than Diehl. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A bar counsel attorney argued yesterday before the state Board of Bar Overseers that former House assistant majority leader Garrett Bradley should lose his law license for two years for filing “false and misleading” documents when he served as managing partner at Thornton Law Firm. (Boston Globe

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MEDIA

Jackie Kucinich of The Daily Beast is taking over as Washington, DC, bureau chief of the Boston Globe. (Media Nation)