Fewer Community College Students Are Earning Bachelor’s Degrees – Why?

Whenever I read another article about community college students losing credits and hope in their quest for a four-year bachelor’s degree, I cringe. A recent Washington Post article by Jon Marcus titled Bachelor’s degree dreams get farther out of reach for one group of students provides a few good examples of some of the experiences of community college students in their quest for a four-year degree.

Mr. Marcus opens the article with an introduction of a Navy veteran who hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology with a goal of ultimately earning a graduate degree in neuroscience. The fact that she’s starting at a community college makes her odds against her achieving this goal even greater.

“Starting at a community college is a great idea,” writes Mr. Marcus. They generally accept everyone who applies and are very affordable or even free. He notes that four out of five students who begin college at a community college say that they plan to transfer at some point to earn a bachelor’s degree. The problem is that only one out of six succeed.

A big part of the problem, writes Mr. Marcus, is the process where little guidance from colleges and universities is provided to keep students from wasting time and money completing courses that will not count toward a bachelor’s degree. This also adds costs for state and federal taxpayers who subsidize these students’ educations.

Before I continue to review Mr. Marcus’ article, I want to point out that no responsible community college should allow a student to select an intended degree path without adequate counseling and/or screening. I am a fan of open enrollment admissions. However, without evidence of a student’s ability to read, write, and pass college math, community college advisors should not allow them to select a major until they complete English 101 and Math 101, two basic requirements for almost all majors. Those courses should be reviewed and approved by the state universities and colleges with which the community college has a transfer agreement. For purposes of brevity, I will assume that developmental writing and math is not necessary. There should be four or more Gen Ed courses available for the first semester that a student can choose from that will also be transferable. All these courses can be highlighted in the electronic (or, heaven forbid, paper) course catalog. Course blocks can be established so that the student(s) cannot register for the next semester until meeting with an advisor and having the block lifted. Some may claim that advising services like this are expensive. I don’t believe that they’re as expensive as the cost of subsidizing college courses that won’t transfer.

The Navy veteran that Mr. Marcus profiles “spends much of her free time emailing department chairs at universities to which she’d like to transfer, checking to make sure she is taking the right courses.” This is outrageous. Community colleges should have transfer credit agreements to four-year institutions for every two-year degree that they offer. They should have a specific degree pathway for their students to follow to assure complete transferability of credits. I find it difficult to believe that most community colleges do not already have something like this in place with their state’s four-year colleges.

Mr. Marcus reports that the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), the institution that the Navy veteran attends, is part of a new coalition of 32 community colleges and 32 four-year universities nationwide trying to find new ways to clear the transfer minefield. The coalition is part of a two-year project funded by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

CCRI hired a full-time transfer coordinator (I’m hoping that this is an incremental position and not the first full-time transfer coordinator that CCRI ever had) and started a program called the Joint Admissions Agreement under which its students are guaranteed admissions to Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. Students enrolled in the program are required to meet with transfer advisers each semester. They also get access to software that tracks their academic progress (note: these two features are something that I believe all community colleges should be doing for all degree-pursuing students). In year one, 136 students signed up for this program. After a $150,000 marketing and advertising push, 694 students signed up this year (note: I don’t know why you would have to spend $150,000 on marketing if you offered these services to all degree-pursuing students).

One of the facts reported that I found surprising was that when CCRI began to work on the transfer process, they found that 42 percent of their 270 general education courses weren’t accepted for credit by the state’s two public universities. This is a shocker. If your mission is student-centered and five out of six students want to transfer to a four-year college, why would you allow any general education course to exist that was not transferable? To CCRI’s credit, they cut the gen ed courses in half and 95 percent of the remaining gen ed courses are transferable to URI and Rhode Island College.

The Aspen Institute estimates that “improving the transfer route from community colleges to four-year universities would result in 9 million more Black and nearly 8 million more Hispanic bachelor’s degree holders.” Mr. Marcus writes that other groups have started working on the problem including the Scaling Partners Network that is backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. On the Scaling Partners Network website, they provide a statistic that 53 percent of transfer students who attained a bachelor’s degree were unable to apply all their transfer credits to the degree. In a world with vastly improved academic software, this is unacceptable to me.

While it’s great to see an escalation in the number of transfer agreements and programs, it’s an initiative that’s at least two decades late. When I began my higher education career at APUS more than two decades ago, I understood that our adult students could not afford the time or money to repeat courses that did not transfer. Perhaps the fact that many community colleges split their students evenly between credit earning and non-credit earning programs has distracted them from focusing on making their credit earning students more successful.

There are several caveats that I think should be pointed out. First, not everyone will have the aptitude or desire to complete certain academic programs like engineering, math, computer science, or nursing. Second, changing your major can change the number of courses that you have to complete to earn your degree. Even with early and frequent advising, there are students who will change their mind. Third, there are students who will decide that continuing to invest their time to earn a two-year degree, much less a four-year degree, is not worth it.

I wrote two blog posts last year about a study that looked at Virginia Community College students who dropped out and did not return for a degree after earning 45 credit hours or more toward their degrees. One of the conclusions by the researchers was that most of the students did not return because the degrees they were pursuing would not provide a credential that would increase their current wages. Not all degrees are equal in terms of earnings for graduates. We need to be more transparent about that in our upfront counseling. We also need to openly recognize that fact when calls for accountability, return on investment, and transparency continue to increase at the state and federal levels.

With the continued decline in community college student enrollments as well as the projected demographic crunch, it’s my hope that all these transfer credit initiatives are successful. At the same time, with better upfront counseling, community colleges will likely see more students switch to short-term credentials instead of degrees. If those credentials lead to better jobs, that’s okay too.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence