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Community college is often sold as a stepping stone to a four-year institution and a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, making the transition from a two-year to a four-year school is often frustratingly difficult, and many students wind up with little to show for the time and money they spend pursuing their dream of a bachelor’s degree.

Yet community colleges play a crucial role in the country’s higher-education system. In 2008, 3.4 million 18- to 24-year olds were enrolled in community colleges, up from 3.1 million the year before. And those numbers have continued to climb throughout the recession, as the relatively low tuition rates of two-year schools make them an attractive option to many students.

Of course, not all students enroll in community colleges with the intent of transferring to a four-year school. Some want a two-year degree in areas such as nursing or information technology. Others pursue certificates or simply wish to enhance their skills but not earn a degree.

Those who do aspire to pursue a bachelor’s degree, however, are often unsuccessful.  About half of all community college students drop out before reaching their second year. Those who make it through two years and try to transfer to a four-year institution frequently come up against disjointed credit-transfer rules or receive inadequate advice from counselors.

Well aware of these problems, numerous states have crafted legislation, policies and initiatives aimed at moving students to and through four-year institutions.

Perhaps the biggest frustration students face when trying to move from a two-year to a four-year school is getting credit for their community-college coursework.

The issue is critical. One study found that 82 percent of students whose credits transferred in their entirety were able to complete their bachelor’s degree within six years of having begun their postsecondary education. But when only some credits were accepted, the degree-completion rate fell to 42 percent. And more than half of the students who transfer to four-year institutions receive only partial credit for their previous coursework.

Many states, including Colorado, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, have created common course-numbering systems to standardize courses across institutions and ensure that credit hours earned at one institution can be applied toward general-education and major requirements at other institutions.

In Florida, a legislatively mandated system standardizes more than 120,000 courses offered at its 28 community colleges, 10 state universities and some private colleges. The state also has a common core and a prerequisite course-list that further eases transfer for students.

In 2007, New Jersey passed legislation that requires its public four-year colleges to count an associate’s degree from a state community college toward the first two years of a bachelor’s degree.

More recently, Tennessee joined the list with the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, which mandates that schools develop a “60 hour set of classes, 41 general education and 19 pre-major, that will be fully transferable by the Fall 2011 semester.”

In October 2010, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that guarantees community college students the right to transfer to any of the 23 California State University campuses after they’ve earned an associate’s degree. A similar effort is under way to guarantee graduates of the state’s community colleges access to the prestigious University of California system. Celebrating the landmark bill, Gov. Schwarzenegger said, to laughter and applause, “We have to make those four-year degrees easier to obtain, not by lowering standards, but by terminating these bureaucratic roadblocks.”

For states that don’t require their four-year institutions to accept coursework completed at community colleges, getting the right advice on what to take can be crucial for students.

Kentucky, Maryland and Pennsylvania are among the states that have launched online transfer sites, which allow students to determine which courses at different institutions are considered equivalent, thus minimizing the chance that their community-college credits won’t count toward their four-year degrees or intended majors.

Face-to-face mentoring is key to success in other places. Advising students, particularly those entering with academic deficiencies, seems to have a positive impact on completion and transfer rates.

Santa Monica College (SMC) in Southern California, which for nearly two decades has had the most students transferring to the University of California system of any community college in the state, has 110 counselors who work with the college’s 30,000 students to understand transfer requirements and financial aid. About 2,000 SMC students transfer each year to the University of California and California State University systems. One in four SMC students transferring into these systems heads to UCLA.

SMC officials credit an array of factors for this success, from admissions and enrollment efforts to counseling students into the right classes, making them eligible for transfer and providing ongoing encouragement. The college’s transfer mission is supported by strong student services, said Brenda Benson, dean of counseling and retention.

“There is a transfer culture here so that everybody at the institution talks transfer, whether it’s the gardener or the parking attendant or the faculty in the classroom or the counselor,” Benson said. “Transfer is the thing we do.”

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