Study finds students who go to community colleges with intent of getting 4-year degrees less likely to succeed

iStock_000018020135XSmallAfter they graduate from high school, many students who want to continue their educations begin their studies at community colleges with plans to transfer to 4-year institutions later. Community colleges are increasingly seen as pathways to earning 4-year degrees for students who need to save money or build up their academic skills.

However a recent study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis reports that students who plan to earn 4-year degrees but start their post-secondary educations in community colleges are 14.5% less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees within 9 years than students who begin their educations at non-selective 4-year institutions.

“Because of the ‘penalty’ experienced by community college students, caution should be exercised when designing policies that might shift enrollment patterns more toward 2-year colleges,” they write.

Among community college students with the intent to get 4-year degrees, only 26% obtained bachelor’s degrees within 9 years compared to 50% of students at non-selective 4-year institutions and 73% at selective 4-year institutions.

“The increased flexibility and nontraditional patterns of attendance afforded by community colleges may weaken a student’s progression through post-secondary education and make transferring to a 4-year college less likely,” the authors write.

Many community college students enroll on a part-time basis. “We found that in fact there is a cost in terms of degree completion, credit accumulation, and the risk for dropping out to initially entering post-secondary study through community colleges. In other words, we found a persistent community college penalty.”

The study focused on one education system, the Ohio public education system, the 5th largest system in the country. It compared the outcomes of students who attended Ohio community colleges, selective and non-selective Ohio post-secondary institutions The study was better able to track students and interpret data by focusing on only one state, the researchers write.

Researchers focused on first-time freshmen aged 17 to 20 years who began their post-secondary studies during fall 1998 and followed them for 9 years until spring 20007. Because community college systems in different states serve varied purposes, it can be difficult to fully understand community college dynamics with national data, say researchers, Bridget Terry Long and Michal Kurlaender.

The data on Ohio system students included important information on students’ degree intent and on family background, which made it possible to control for other differences between students who go to community colleges and 4-year institutions. The researchers restricted the sample to students who took the ACT, further demonstrating their intent to go on to 4-year colleges.

Ohio system applications ask students to describe their intentions for continuing their educations. One challenge in studying students who attend community colleges is that they do not randomly choose their colleges, the researchers write, in explaining their use of propensity scores and instrumental variables (IV) as methods. Students make their choices not only based on preferences, but based on financial constraints, academic profiles and beliefs about the benefits of 2-year vs. 4-year institutions.

The researchers examined several student outcomes including baccalaureate degree completion (after 4, 6 and 9 years), total credit hours completed and stop-out behavior (within 1, 2 and 6 years). The Ohio data did not include information on students who transferred to private colleges or out-of-state universities, so they may have been incorrectly counted as dropouts in the study, but the researchers say they believed the percentage of these transfers is very small.

Community college students are also less likely to be enrolled full-time, with 56% of 2-year students enrolled full-time as freshmen compared with 82% at selective 4-year institutions and 67% at non-selective 4-year institutions.

The researchers added that their estimates of students who do not earn 4-year degrees are probably conservative because of their sample criterion that students had to have taken the ACT.


“Do Community Colleges Provide a Viable Pathway to a Baccalaureate Degree?” by Bridget Terry Long and Michal Kurlaender, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, March 2009, Volume 32, Number 1, pp. 30-53.

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