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New Study: California Community College Students Abandon Transfer Plans At High Rate

Six in 10 California community college system students with high school diplomas and transfer aspirations are giving up transfer plans or dropping out after only one semester, a new study reveals. Research conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) also finds that two-year college students taking four classes or more are far more likely to transfer.

According to the report, authored by PACE researcher Dr. Anne Driscoll,  “This analysis suggests that a focus on access is necessary, but more preparation for the transition from high school to college is essential to achieve the goal of a more educated population and workforce.”

The study, titled “Beyond Access: How the First Semester Matters for Community College Students’ Aspirations and Persistence,” found that 25 percent of first-time students entering California community colleges in 1998 who had high school diplomas and stated goals of transferring to four-year colleges did not return to school for the spring 1999 semester. Also, nearly two-thirds of these students didn’t return the following year. Of those who did come back, only four in 10 still had aspirations to transfer.

“This report suggests that the first semester in college is a pivotal moment in students’ academic careers,” says Dr. David N. Plank, executive director of PACE. “If we can find ways to support successful transitions for entering students by providing more guidance and academic support, we can increase the odds that they will stay in school and complete degrees.”


The report also points out though California has more community college students than any state —  2.5 million —  it ranks below the national average in the proportion of full-time postsecondary students who end up graduating with bachelor’s degrees. Plank says increased guidance and academic support for incoming California community college students will boost retention and transfer rates, though Dr. David Neumark, a University of California, Irvine economics professor and Public Policy Institute of California senior fellow, says high school failures also contribute to the problem.

“Many high schools, not just in California but everywhere, are failing to deliver students to college ready to learn, and that is certainly bad for those individuals and taxpayers who might not be satisfied with what they’re getting. Whether it’s more efficient to intervene at the community college level with remediation or more efficient to try to fix high schools, it’s not entirely clear. … It would be great if we could encourage people to stay in school longer. How is a much tougher question,” Neumark says. 

The PACE study followed first-time students enrolled in California community college system schools aged 17-20 in the fall of 1998. The study examined system data collected over a six-year period that tracked retention and graduation rates.

PACE is an independent policy research center based at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. For the complete report and more information, visit PACE on the Web at

– David Pluviose

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