The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Low-income students who transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges are less likely to get a degree than their wealthier peers, a new report shows. But in a sign of hope, their success varies dramatically by state and by college.

The Topic: Transfer Success RatesWhy It Matters: With help, lower-income transfer students can finish bachelors degrees

“It means that demography is not destiny,” said Davis Jenkins, one of the report’s authors and a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “If we care about upward social mobility, then we need to pay attention to transfer students.”

Nationally, just 36 percent of low-income transfer students complete a B.A. compared with 44 percent of middle and upper income students.

For decades, the ability to earn a college degree has been determined largely by whether a student starts off poor. Most low-income students go to community college, so increasing the number who successfully transfer and get a bachelor’s degree could enable those low-income students to use higher education to get to the middle class.

Overall, only 14 percent of all students who entered a community college in 2007 transferred and then earned a four-year degree within six years, the report shows. (Some dropped out, some left college after earning their associate’s degree.) Among those who did transfer, on average 42 percent went on to get a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting at a community college.

But the results varied greatly by state – from just 13 percent in South Dakota to 49 percent in Washington and Iowa.

Related: Underserved and overburdened, transfer students face an uphill battle to earn their degrees

Iowa also stood out as having one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor students who earned a bachelor’s degree – just one percentage point. Florida and Nebraska also had less disparity.

Nationally, 36 percent of low-income students who transfer complete a B.A. degree in six years, while 44 percent of middle- and upper-income students do.

Meanwhile California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia had a higher-than-average percentage of transfer students who earned B.A.s, but they had a lower-than-average percentage of low-income students getting a four-year degree. It appears that at least some of these states achieved high overall rates because of the strong performance of higher-income students, the report’s authors conclude.

The report did not offer specifics on why some states and colleges were successful – that will be examined in a report planned for May – but the authors said that the states with good results had solid partnerships between community and four-year colleges. They also had simple ways to transfer credits and they paid special attention to transfer students, in the same way some colleges orient and support freshmen in their first year.

Related: Federal study finds 40 percent of transfer students get no credit

The academic and social preparation provided by community colleges was clearly important. But the researchers said that the approach taken by the four-year colleges was equally, if not more, significant and could increase chances of success, regardless of where the student had started.

Public colleges and universities were more successful in general than nonprofit private ones, and both did much better than for-profit colleges, which had an 8 percent average graduation rate. Jenkins called their results “scandalous.” Selective colleges did the best.

“If we care about upward social mobility, then we need to pay attention to transfer students.”

The report paints a hopeful picture of what is possible if public policy shifts, since 70 percent of those students who do transfer go to four-year public colleges.

“Seeing the enormous variation suggests that colleges can dramatically improve,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “There is a huge potential to increase the number of students who attain a baccalaureate degree.”

The report, released Tuesday, was produced by the CCRC at Teachers College (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit based at Teachers College), the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust (which have also funded The Hechinger Report).

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

Top five states for low-income transfer students earning bachelor’s degrees within six years (with 100 or more students)

State # of students Completion Rate
Iowa 973 47%
Florida 5,606 44%
Washington 761 42%
Mississippi 2,622 42%
Tennessee 2,062 41%

Source: “Tracking Transfer” Jan. 2016


Bottom five states for low-income transfer students earning bachelor’s degrees within six years

State # of students Completion Rate
South Dakota 72 21%
Ohio 2,102 23%
New Mexico 514 24%
Maine 184 24%
West Virginia 113 25%

Source: “Tracking Transfer” Jan. 2016

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *