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.
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.”
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.”
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