Evidence arrives in tantalizing dribs and drabs:
* Almost 64 percent of juniors and seniors at Arizona State University have transfer hours from community colleges.
* Half of all the students receiving engineering degrees from the University of Maryland began at community colleges.
* About half of all juniors and seniors at the Newark campus of
Rutgers University are transfer students most of them probably from
* Enrollement of African American students in eight public
Mississippi universities increased by 1.8 percent from 1996-97 to
1997-98 while the number of first-time African American freshmen
dropped 8.3 percent during the same period. The difference? They are
transferring from community colleges.
School-by-school, state-by-state, the evidence is sketchy but tends
toward the same direction: more and more four-year college students are
beginning their higher education careers at community colleges.
If this is true, the implications for four-year colleges and
universities could be profound, especially in how they think about
recruiting and retaining students. This is especially true for students
of color, since about half of all college students of color attend
The Lack of Documentation
The trouble is that no one appears to have any definitive, national figures.
“I don’t know if we have the data on that,” says Dr. David Pierce,
executive director of the American Association of Community Colleges.
“There are some states that collect data — California, Washington,
California is the acknowledged leader in forging clear pathways
between community colleges and four-year state institutions,
particularly the California State University System. And although
Washington and Arizona State Universities are close behind, the
question of whether the trend has spread east is difficult to answer.
That’s because there are no national numbers on how many baccalaureates
began their careers at community colleges.
Alison Bernstein, vice president of the Ford Foundation, tracks the
issue of community college transfers as closely as is possible, and she
says, “No one will give you reliable national data.”
Even many institutions don’t know.
“We don’t have an ability to track backward that way,” says David
Crook, assistant director of institutional research for the city
University of New York (CUNY), which is under attack for maintaining
open-enrollment two-year colleges.
“We know that roughly half of our baccalaureates came as transfer
students, but we don’t know how many came from two-year colleges or
from other baccalaureate programs,” says Crook. “I would think most
transfer from community colleges.”
At CUNY’s flagship senior college, City College of New York (CCNY)
— which in 1996 conferred more baccalaureates on African American
students than any other non-historically Black institution — the
statistics show that in 1996, 742 students transferred to the college,
of whom 394 came with either community college degrees or community
college credit. And CCNY can further say that transfer students
graduate at a rate slightly higher than first-time freshmen.
But that’s as far as the data goes. CCNY can’t say how many of its baccalaureates started at community colleges.
City University is not alone in the paucity of that kind of data.
Many institutions don’t track their students that way. And if they do,
the information is kept internally only and not reported nationally.
A Shift in Demographics
The number of African Americans and Asian Americans obtaining
baccalaureate degrees is increasing at a startling rate, while Latino
degree-acquisition rates are increasing at a much slower pace. For
African Americans, the increase in baccalaureate attainment this decade
has been 6.8 percent a year — meaning that the number of bachelor’s
degrees conferred on African Americans has gone from 64,556 in 1990-91
to 84,108 in 1995-96.
The only degree-acquisition rates which are decreasing are those
for White students — a development likely attributable to the sharp
decrease in the number of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in this
But what seems to come through the swelter of numbers is that
degree attainment — especially for students of color — is going up at
the same time dropout rates, persistence rates, and graduation rates
are going down.
One explanation is that more and more students — particularly
students of color — are older, begin first at community colleges, and
may take several years before completing a two-year degree. Even if
they then transfer to a baccalaureate institution, they may not be
reflected in the national statistics.
A recent public policy trend, which might account for the increased
number of four-year college students who began their postsecondary
studies at community colleges, is the increased number of states that
have crafted transfer and articulation agreements. These agreements,
between community colleges and four-year institutions, ensure that
students can transfer core education credits earned at a community
college to four-year institutions.
Some of the impetus for the agreements is political, as state
legislators have realized that they often subsidize students taking the
same course twice — first at a two-year and then at a four-year
school. Last year, the legislatures in Arizona, Kentucky, Washington,
and several other states passed laws designed to smooth and strengthen
in-state transfers, following a path blazed by Maryland and others.
In addition, dozens of colleges and state universities all across
the country have signed articulation agreements in the past year.
Arizona State University, for example, recently announced that a
community college degree means automatic entrance into the university.
However, it is unclear whether such transfer and articulation
agreements are the reason for more transfer students or a response to
“The transfer and articulation agreements have been in response to
the movement of students,” says Dr. Ronald Williams, vice president for
academic affairs at the Community College of Philadelphia, and a board
member of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“What we have done has been to attempt to accommodate the students’
desire to move. It was the difficulties of moving which prompted the
A Need for Acceptance
Those difficulties are well-documented — including a lack of
information for students about what curriculum is required at four-year
institution, and course credits that don’t transfer between
institutions. Part of the reason for those difficulties is the
suspicion by four-year institutions that community college courses
don’t meet high enough standards.
However, that suspicion seems to be abating.
“We are in a more mature state in that role,” says Dr. Joseph
Hankin, president of Westchester Community College in suburban New
York. “Years ago we worried if [the public and the universities] would
accept us as transfer institutions.”
Some community colleges are working harder at their transfer
function. For example, all fifty-eight of North Carolina’s community
colleges switched to a semester system last year, largely to be more in
sync with the academic calendars of that state’s public universities.
But even information about transfer and articulation agreements
tends to be gathered piecemeal because the information is not being
“There’s really been no compilation on that subject because it is
so diverse,” says Elizabeth Foote, of the ERIC Community College
“I’m not sure anyone has documented this,” says AACC’s Pierce.
Ford Foundation’s Bernstein says that a number of things could be
at work in increasing enrollments of community colleges, which have
gone from 4.7 million in 1986 to 5.5 million in 1996.
“These are only speculations based on factors that might be
influencing college choice,” Bernstein says. “One factor is
affordability. If students can begin their baccalaureate studies at
community college, they save a lot of money.
“The second phenomenon is…there is more enrollment [in community
colleges] in order to increase professional and vocational training,”
she continues. “Last but not least, there is a question whether, with
the elimination of affirmative action, students of color find more of a
welcome at community colleges.”
Berstein contends that community college students are not
recognized often enough as a source of talent by four-year
institutions. She was instrumental in putting the Ford Foundation’s
money behind nurturing that notion in a transfer program developed
between Vassar College and LaGuardia Community College.
“To say that half of four-year students received community college
credits is becoming almost universal,” contends Dr. Robert E. Parilla,
president of Montgomery College in suburban Maryland.
But, he adds, “It has not necessarily been recognized by policy makers or practitioners.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com