PhotoAs college tuition costs continue to escalate and four-year universities raise entrance requirements, more students are turning to community colleges to continue their education.

Some do so reluctantly, as though attending a community college is not something to value. But increasingly educators have begun to cite community colleges as a way for more students to get an education without running up a college loan tab the size of a small mortgage.

President Obama has been a strong booster of community colleges as a way to address many of the education issues facing the country.

"In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience,” Obama said in a speech on education. “We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.”

Obama is not alone. Scholarships.com, a company that helps students find money for school, says community colleges don't deserve a second-rate reputation. It cites figures from the College Board showing tuition and fees for public two-year colleges averaged just $2,544 during the 2009-2010 academic year, a fraction of what pricer four-year schools cost.

Path to a four-year degree?

True enough, but does attending a two-year school help or hinder your efforts to complete a college education? A new study by researchers at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) found that students who start out at a community college and successfully transfer to a four-year college have graduation rates equal to those who start out at a four-year school.

The key qualifier, however, is “successfully transfer.” When the researchers looked at the total number of students who enrolled at a community college they found a lower percentage – less than those who enrolled at a four-year school – ended up getting a bachelor's degree.

Then again, many likely enrolled at a community college only to pursue a two-year associate's degree, never having any intention of transferring to a four year college. In fact, early community colleges – called “junior colleges” – emphasized vocational training and two-year degree programs.

Big draw-back

But one of the criticisms of community colleges today is the difficulty in transferring credits to a four-year institution. Some community college courses may seem exactly the same as the course taught at a four-year institution, but the four-year institution may not accept it.

As a result, many community college students are frustrated when the courses they have taken don't transfer. The CUNY researchers say this remains an issue that needs to be addressed to make community colleges more attractive to more students.

“Loss of credits is a tax on transfer students,” said David Monaghan, one of the CUNY researchers. “Policymakers should be pushing both community colleges and four-year institutions to address it.”

One solution, he says, is for community colleges to invest more in transfer counseling services. And four-year institutions should develop processes for facilitating, not hindering, credit transfer for academically qualified students.

Scope of problem

The study found that only 58% of community college transfers were able to move at least 90% of their credits to a four-year college. Nearly 14% of would-be transferees, the study found, lost 90% or more of their credits when they tried to enroll in a four-year institution. Success or failure in transferring credits, the study says, is directly related to the success in obtaining a four-year degree.

Students who have all or almost all their credits transferred are 2.5 times more likely to earn a BA than students with fewer than half their credits transferred. The researchers found that students who get between half and 89 percent of their credits accepted have a 74 percent higher chance of earning a BA.

Some states have begun to address this issue by requiring state universities to get in sync with state community colleges. New Jersey, for example, requires that all for-credit courses earned in state community colleges must count toward BA graduation after transfer to a state four-year college. If more states adopted the model, the researchers say, it would vastly improve the transition form a two-year to a four-year degree.

The impact could be huge. Citing figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in 2012 45% of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to students who had transferred from a community college.


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