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Students are often advised to start college at a public community college as a way to save thousands of dollars on a bachelor’s degree. According to the most recent federal data in 2017-18, the average tuition and fees at a community college was $3,200, which compares favorably with $9,000 at a public four-year school. When they first arrive, about 80 percent of community college students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

But the path to the B.A. is fraught. Only 13 percent of the students who start at a community college manage to get a bachelor’s degree six years later, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. One part of the problem is that only 30 percent of community college students succeed in transferring to a four-year institution. 

Researchers in California are trying to get a better handle on this particular clog in the college pipeline. Despite their best intentions, many of California’s two million community college students aren’t able to take or pass enough courses to make headway. Roughly 900,000 fell into this category between 2010 and 2015.

But a surprising number of California’s community college students —  about 300,000 during this 2010-15 time period — had met the requirements for transfer or were just a course away from doing so and still didn’t end up transferring, according to researchers at the RP Group, a nonprofit research organization that studies the state’s community colleges. We don’t know for sure if every single one of these students wanted a bachelor’s degree but their transcripts reveal that they took classes that would count at four-year universities, a sign of their desire to transfer. These students had completed 60 credits — the equivalent of two full-time years of classes — and maintained at least a C average. Even more perplexing, more than half of these students dropped out of college without an associate degree or any credential.

The RP Group surveyed 800 California community college students and interviewed others in depth to understand why some students managed to transfer and others didn’t. The results were issued in a May 2020 report and media briefing. 

Lack of money was a major obstacle. Many students were unaware of the financial aid and subsidized loans that they could tap into and mistakenly thought that a four-year institution was unaffordable. “They didn’t know that they can get more aid at a university than at a community college,” said Darla Cooper of the RP Group. 

Juggling family and work along with school was a challenge for many. Even students who were close to the transfer threshold sometimes reported that the one class they still needed was only offered once a week at a time that conflicted with their schedules, Cooper said. Other students, especially those who were also parents and taking care of children themselves, reported that it was too difficult to move to live in commuting distance to a four-year school. 

Requirements and procedures also frustrated many.  One example: Students thought they had satisfied their credit requirements only to learn after many semesters of college that they still had additional requirements to complete for their majors. 

The transfer process itself is so complicated that Mariana Moreno, who runs the transfer center at Crafton Hills College in southern California, created a course website to walk students through it and runs a four-session workshop just to explain all 14 steps. Moreno told me she’s considering lengthening her workshop with a fifth session. 

Moreno described situations where students who had Advanced Placement (AP) credits from high school were denied a transfer to a four-year university because they hadn’t separately submitted their AP test scores directly from the College Board to the four-year university. It doesn’t matter that the AP credits were already documented on their community college transcripts. 

“Some of my brightest students get hung up,” said Moreno. “These situations are common.”

Liza Mejia, a 36-year-old single mother, had an A-minus grade-point average and enough credits at Crafton Hills to transfer out.  But Mejia said that her local campus of California State University rejected her because the university said it hadn’t received a “partial transcript” by a February deadline long after the main application was due. Her regular transcript was submitted on time with her application but the university also required a mid-semester documentation of her final roster of spring classes. Mejia said she submitted the paperwork in person and on time but the university didn’t have a record of it and her appeal failed. 

Mejia credits the support network at Crafton Hills for encouraging her to reapply a year later. (She was part of a program that gave disadvantaged students extra advising and support.) This time around, she was accepted to all four of the four-year University of California schools that she applied to. Cal State eventually reversed its decision and also admitted Mejia. She’s headed to University of California Los Angeles this fall. To learn more about Mejia’s story, read her student voice OpEd here.

Researchers observed that many students like Mejia who successfully transferred had caring adults who checked in with them even when there were no immediate problems or missed deadlines. By contrast, many students who failed to transfer not only didn’t have this kind of support network but also didn’t understand why they would need one or know how to build one, the RP Group researchers said.

One impediment to transfer that’s not discussed in the report is math. More than 140,000 of the students who were close to meeting transfer requirements in RP Group’s data analysis were missing a college-level math class. Either this means that the student was unable to progress from remedial math courses and pass a college math course or the student never signed up for a math course. “We know that a lot of students delay taking a course because of math anxiety,” said Alyssa Nguyen, an RP Group researcher. “It’s real.”

The report reveals that problems in transferring persist despite California’s 2010 creation of a new two-year associate degree to make it easier for students to transfer. And though one would think it should be easy to get the students who have met transfer requirements over the hump and admitted to four-year colleges, the report also reveals that it’s going to take a wide range of solutions, from explaining financial aid options to cutting down red tape. Some solutions — like building support networks — will be expensive. 

Getting a four-year degree is one obvious way to bridge the growing gap between rich and poor. If community colleges, four-year universities and philanthropies  don’t put energy into helping more low-income students reach that goal, we are giving up on the American Dream for this generation.

This story about the transferring from community college to university was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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  1. In my experience with transferring from a community college to a four-year university was the accumulation of non-transferable credits. I learned that the credits earned at the associate level did not meet the requirements for my chosen program of study. This problem arose even though the classes were a requirement between the two schools transfer agreement for my bachelor’s degree. This problem left me with wasted time and money (non-transferable credits), as well as retaking identical courses.

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