Transfer and dropout statistics don’t tell the whole story

Anyone who looks at transfer rates from community colleges would be well advised to be prepared for dismal reading.

Dr. Arthur M. Cohen, the head of the ERIC Community College
Clearing House, hads kept a careful watch on transfers for several
decades. He says the rates hover around 22 or 23 percent, depending on
the year.

But first he had to figure out what a transfer was.

“The first thing we did [was] to take a number of credit hours,”
says Alison Bernstein, vice president of the Ford Foundation, which
funded Cohen’s transfer study. “Any community college student who
finished twelve hours was potentially a transfer student.”

Bernstein explains that this step eliminated most students who had
taken just a few courses for training, continuing education, or
vocational purposes.

“And then we ask the question, what percentage of the students who
have done at least twelve credit hours in one year have transferred?”
she explains.

That is the criteria Cohen used to come up with percentages. But
even given those criteria, transfer rates from community colleges are
notoriously difficult to measure, in part because so many community
college students do not fit standard college-going patterns.

Although some community college students are recent high school
graduates who attend for two consecutive years and then transfer to a
four-year institution, they are not the majority. Community college
students tend to be older, employed, often with families, and — even
if they aspire to a four-year degree — may not be able to pursue a
degree without interruption.

The Uncounted

Community college students often start and stop their education
several times, sometimes moving and changing colleges. So even if they
get their degree, they may not show up in the statistics as transfers.

Dr. Robert E. Parilla, president of Montgomery College in suburban
Maryland, says that his students are only counted as transfers if they
transfer to a Maryland public institution. However, if they transfer to
other institutions — like nearby George Mason University, which is
public but in the state of Virginia; or Howard or American
Universities, which are private and in the District of Columbia; or
even Johns Hopkins, which is in Maryland but private — they do not
count as transfers according to the statistics kept by the state.

Ironically, some students are discouraged from transferring to
Maryland institutions, Parilla said. For example, the engineering
school at the University of Maryland won’t offer scholarship to
transfer students.

“Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute] offered two of our students
full scholarship — that’s about $20,000 a year,” said Parilla.

The University of Maryland offered the students nothing, so they
went to Rensselaer, one of the more prestigious universities in the
country. As a result, they won’t be counted in official statistics as
having transferred.

And then there is the issue of the students who interrupt their
education for a variety of reasons — from the illness of a family
member, to lack of money, to job pressures.

“Of my 40,000-plus students, most of them are part-time,” says Dr.
Ronald Williams, vice president for academic affairs at the Community
College of Philadelphia. “When someone shows up and takes a course and
then doesn’t come back until 1999, is that a drop out?”

The answer is — officially — yes. In fact, Williams’s daughter,
who now holds a master’s in business administration, shows up in the
statistics as a community college dropout because she began at
community college and left before completing a degree.

“Stopout” Students

Students who start and stop and later return — dubbed “stopouts”
by the Carnegie Foundation in the 1980s — constitute a mystery as far
as education statistics go.

“That particular group of people require more inquiry,” says Dr.
Juan Avalos, who wrote his dissertation on the effects of stopping out
and transferring on degree attainment. “A dropout is a dropout is a
dropout. The literature doesn’t differentiate.”

Avalos says that when he did his research, which involved studying
the responses of a group of students first samples in 1985 and then
subsequently sampled later, he always kept in mind members of his
family. His brother “has been bouncing around community colleges for
years, but he’s still out there,” he says.

Avalos was one of Dr. Alexander Astin’s researchers on Degree
Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities: Effects of
Race, Gender, and Institutional Type, a study published by UCLA’s
Higher Education Research Institute in 1996. It was that study that did
the sampling of students that Avalos used for his dissertation.

Astin, who is one of the premier scholars studying this issue, says
in the study that his results “reinforce the popular conception that
degree completion rates in American higher education have been

The study found that only 39.9 percent of those who had enrolled in
any postsecondary institution for the first time in 1985 had graduated
four years later, and by nine year later only 45.7 percent had
graduated. These are lower degree-attainment rates than were see in
previous decades.

But as William Korn, who works with Astin, says, the study was
hampered by the fact that it relied on registrars to know where their
former students were. If a student “stopped out and returned somewhere
else, the registrar wouldn’t know.”

That, coupled with the fact that “minorities tend not to return our
survey,” means that there are still some students — about whom we do
not know what happened.

“We were looking where the light was best,” Korn says.

Available Research

Another premier researcher in this field, Dr. Michael T. Nettles of
The College Fund/UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Institute, has analyzed
the degree attainment and persistence patterns of students who begin
their postsecondary education in community colleges. He relies on the
most important data base that has been compiled on this topic, the
1989-90 beginning Postsecondary Students: Five Years Later, a report
done by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.”

That study, which follows the entire cohort of student who entered
postsecondary institutions in 1989-90, found that half the students
started at two-year colleges and only 42 percent at four-year colleges,
with the rest attending private, for-profit institutions. Of those,
only 60 percent of the four-year students had achieved a degree and
38.4 percent of the two-year college students had achieved a degree.
(See BI The Numbers on page 28) Those figures differ between Whites and
African American and other students of color, notes Nettles.

“Any time you have a difference it points to an inequality,”
Nettles says, who adds that there is no question that students of color
— other than Asian Americans — do not graduate at the same rate as

But the problem is that even that study — which is the best there
is — only goes five years. Because community college persistence
patterns require a longer time frame to see, they are virtually
invisible to the researchers.

One piece of evidence that may be true is a study of students
admitted to open admissions community colleges in the City University
of New York (CUNY) system, Changing the Odds — Open Admissions and the
life Chances of the Disadvantaged. In that study, conducted by David E.
Lavin and David Hyllegard, it appears that although students admitted
under the open admissions standards typically take longer to graduate
— six to eight years is not uncommon — 56 percent of them do go on to
graduate and about 18 percent go on for post-graduate work.

According to the Ford Foundation’s Bernstein, Lavin’s study shows
hat you can have “gloom and doom” if you look at some statistics, but
it is not exactly clear who is doing what in higher education.

“We’re taking pictures in a very traditional way. We are taking
pictures with a four-by-four camera. You need to have a more panoramic

As Community College of Philadelphia’s William says: “We just don’t
know. The criticism I accept is that we don’t know. Should we know
more? That’s an expensive proposition.”

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