A recent report demonstrates that attending a community college increases the chance for low-income, underrepresented students to attend selective four-year institutions.
In the research paper, “Does the Community College Pathway Influence the Selectivity of Students’ Destination 4-Year Institution?” authors Dr. Justin C. Ortagus and Dr. Xiaodan Hu answer with a resounding “yes.” When comparing minority, low-income and academically underprepared students who directly entered four-year institutions with students of similar backgrounds who went first to community colleges, the students who transferred from community colleges were 24% more likely to attend a selective college or university.
“It’s not correct to say, ‘Community colleges are just for students to complete their remedial education and to major in CTE (career and technical education) courses,’” says Hu, assistant professor of higher education and program coordinator of the Community College Leadership Program at Northern Illinois University. “People tend to overlook the richness that community colleges provide.”
The researchers used data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study for 2004–09 conducted by the U.S. Department of Education to estimate the influence of transferring from a community college versus directly entering a four-year institution on the selectivity of the destination institution.
Ortagus and Hu’s study included 7,110 students nationwide, for whom
starting higher education at a selective college or university was not a likely option. Those who chose to attend four-year institutions went to either open admission or minimally selective institutions.
Community colleges are less expensive than four-year institutions, which means the students can save money and conserve their resources during their first two years, making bachelor’s degrees from four-year institutions more affordable. Not to mention, the smaller class sizes and support systems help underprepared students flourish.
Ortagus, assistant professor of higher education administration & policy and director of the Institute of Higher Education in the College of Education at University of Florida, says he and Hu chose selectivity as an outcome because they wanted to spotlight the positive benefits of community colleges. Students who attended a community college and then sought to transfer to a four-year institution were better prepared and therefore more likely to apply to moderately selective or very selective institutions.
Research such as this is vital, says Dr. Christine Mangino, provost and vice president of Hostos Community College in New York City. With an increasing number of four-year institutions accepting community college transfers to reach their enrollment goals, it’s important these students are respected.
“Research that documents the positive impact of community colleges on the successful transition to senior colleges can be used to change the mindset of society,” Mangino says. “Students face the stigma when they tell people they are attending or attended a community college and this includes while sitting in classrooms at four-year institutions.”
Mangino cites herself as an example of someone who began her higher education journey at a community college and persisted in higher education through graduate school. She went from a B student in high school to graduating community college with a 4.0 GPA, which earned her a partial scholarship to a private university.
“Our students help institutions increase the diversity of their student
bodies and they already successfully earned one degree, so their chances of graduating with a bachelor’s degree is greater,” says Mangino.
“To find a student who has already excelled at higher education by proving to be outstanding in their introductory coursework, that’s a proven commodity for these selective universities,” says Ortagus.
A report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions,” notes that 75% of those students graduate within six years. Community college students comprise 10% of transfer students at highly competitive institutions and 15% of transfers at very competitive institutions. In addition, 84% of community colleges have placed at least one student into a selective four-year institution.
“These national reports help the dialogue,” says John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Before becoming a researcher, Fink worked with students who transferred to the University of Maryland from community colleges.
“They’ve navigated these complex bureaucratic processes,” Fink says of the students. “We shouldn’t be surprised that these students are incredibly strong and adept at connecting to and navigating the university environment, but they need support.”
That support includes removing the stigma around community college students, says Fink.
“Communicating to faculty and staff that these community college transfer students are … actually performing quite well and … making up a large share of students in your classrooms,” Fink says.
A democratic mission
Fink says Ortagus and Hu’s study is useful in calling attention to community colleges as an important pathway to selective institutions.
“Transfer has always been part of the community college mission,” says Fink. “Part of this is about dispelling the stigma attached with community colleges and recognizing that these are incredibly democratic, wonderful institutions that serve communities, serve all comers and are really focused on teaching, learning, connecting students to things that they’re passionate about and helping them find their path to get there.”
Community colleges have multiple missions, of which transfer is one, so it is important that there is good collaboration between community colleges and four-year institutions, says Hu. For instance, when some credits don’t transfer, that poses problems.
In their report, Ortagus and Hu note students attending selective four-year institutions have a higher probability of completing a bachelor’s degree than their peers at less-selective institutions.
CCRC worked with the Aspen Institute to create “The Transfer Playbook: Essential Practices for Two- and Four-Year Colleges.” It identifies pairs of community colleges and four-year institutions that had high numbers of transfers as well as strong bachelor’s completion outcomes among those transfer students. Researchers visited six sites to inform the playbook.
“What we saw on these sites were that the institutions were prioritizing transfer,” says Fink. “There was a lot of alignment along the transfer pathways — both curricular, aligning the courses, but also pedagogically, aligning the teaching and learning side, so that students would be prepared for junior level courses and would have all of their credits applied to their bachelor’s degree program.”
Mangino says that easing the transfer process for Hostos Community College students is an intentional focus.
“At Hostos, we are collaborating on a couple of grants that are specifically looking at transfer issues,” Mangino says. “One involves surveying students pre- and post-transfer experience to determine the actual issues so we can put mechanisms in place to ease the transition to a senior college at both the community college and senior college.”
Ortagus, Hu and Fink all say community colleges are underfunded. But now that they’ve spotlighted the potential for those students, Ortagus says he hopes there will be more funding and support.
“Community colleges are often very short-staffed in academic advising,” notes Hu. “Hopefully, people can see the value of our work and justify their institutional needs to support students in meeting their goals.”
With more conversation around community colleges being a good springboard to selective institutions, Ortagus says he hopes opportunities for students will increase. And while most states have articulation agreements to ensure that community college core credits and associate degrees transfer over, he advocates for greater communication between community colleges and four-year institutions.
“Community colleges oftentimes are where students are able to find themselves intellectually and decide what it is they want to study,” Ortagus says. “Finding ways to fund community colleges in an equitable way would allow them to continue this good work.”