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Barriers to credit transfers lower graduation rates, new study finds

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Universities’ unwillingness to award academic credit to community-college students for courses they already took is driving down graduation rates for the increasing number of people following that route to a degree, according to new research.

Six-year outcomes by starting institution type (Source: National Student Clearinghouse)

Six-year outcomes by starting institution type (Source: National Student Clearinghouse)

If not for the loss of academic credits when students transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges and universities, 54 percent of them would graduate, compared to the 46 percent who do now, the research, conducted at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, found.

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

Eighty-one percent of community college students say they plan to transfer to an institution that awards bachelor’s degrees, largely because the strategy saves money.

But they may face the additional cost of retaking courses to satisfy the credit requirements of universities, even within the same states or systems.

Monaghan and his coauthor, Paul Attewell, found that the credit barrier was the reason community-college students who transfer to four-year universities graduate at lower rates than classmates who began in them—not a lack of academic preparation or financial aid.

A third of students now transfer sometime during their academic careers, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says, and a quarter of those change schools more than once.

The Clearinghouse says 40 percent of students who start at two-year institutions graduate, compared to 63 percent of those who start at four-year schools.

When these students’ credits don’t transfer with them, they churn, seemingly endlessly, in college, piling up debt and wasting time repeating the same courses.

It now takes full-time students, on average, 3.8 years to earn a two-year associate’s degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year bachelor’s degree, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America—further increasing the already high cost to families, and, at public universities, states.

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