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5 Ways Transfer Pathways Are Broken

Every year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of students enter a community college aspiring to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree one day; most will fail to do so. Community colleges continue to be popular entry-points into post-secondary education, and the 21st Century economy increasingly requires a college degree, so the fact that so few students are successful is a national embarrassment. The learners want it; the economy rewards it. It’s time to address this challenge.


Value of community colleges

Community colleges continue to be a common entry-point into post-secondary education, especially for adult learners, part-time students, Hispanics, first-generation, and students whose families earn less than $32,000. Overall, community colleges represent 45% of all undergraduate students. Most of these students, to the tune of 80%, aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree.

In terms of cost-benefit, community colleges make sense. On average, community colleges are about a third of the cost of their four-year public peers. Several states, including Oregon, Kentucky, and Tennessee, take this opportunity further by offering pathways to a tuition-free associate degree. As more states continue to explore legislation moving towards free community college, it only becomes more popular as a route to a bachelor’s degree.


Value of a bachelor’s degree

Unlike the 20th Century, where a high school degree was sufficient for most jobs, the 21st Century has experienced “degree inflation”. Essentially, the bachelor’s degree has transformed from a currency into a key, from a luxury into a requirement, for a person to be competitive in the economy. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce, 73% of all jobs created since the Great Recession require a bachelor’s degree, and 97% of “good jobs” (those paying at least $53,000 a year) have gone to those with a bachelor’s.


The problem: Broken Transfer Pathways

We know that community colleges are an entry-point to post-secondary education for millions of students; we also know the bachelor’s degree is the key to competing for a good job in the 21st Century. So what’s the problem? As mentioned above, 80% of students who enter community colleges aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Despite these aspirations, the CCRC reports that only 25% transfer within 5 years to a 4-year college and only 17% will earn a bachelor’s within 6 years of transferring. You read that correctly: 17%. In another study from CCRC, only 100,000 students out of a cohort of 720,000 students entering community colleges in 2006 had earned a bachelor’s, a figure closer to 14%. Although they’re not attaining, these students are still racking up debt and committing time toward a degree they will not earn.

The education to career pipeline - why we need seamless transfer pathways

Even for those who do navigate the system and earn a degree, the broken pathway comes with its own costs. More than 90% of students who intend to earn a 4-year degree take longer than 4 years to do so. Each additional year costs students tens of thousands of dollars in lost salary, which PEW estimates to be about $17,000 a year. In addition to this extra time, students, on average, complete degrees with 134.6 credits even though only 120 are needed. This surfeit, which equates to a full semester’s workload, adds an unnecessary $4500 in costs. Curves in the transfer pathway—credits not transferring, course outcomes not aligning, students having to drop in and out to accommodate different campuses and services—all contribute to extra costs placed on students who enter community college and hope to earn a bachelor’s degree.


But why is this pathway broken?

Although both are institutions of higher learning, community colleges and four-year colleges differ in numerous ways that create different experiences for students that might transfer between them. We see 5 areas in particular that need to be resolved to make transfer pathways seamless:

1. Navigating admissions…twice Community colleges are open-enrollment, allowing virtually any student to enroll and start courses. But when it comes to transferring, they have to work with an entirely new admissions department, the rigor and relevance of their course of study may be called into question, they must become proficient in a new language, they have to dig up transcripts and course information…the redundancies and additions go on. The added time and frustration of trying to coordinate two admissions processes can be overwhelming and enough to pose an obstacle to transferring.

2. Blind hand-off for advising In high school, in community college, and in a four-year institution, there are separate silos of bureaucracy. Each institution advises students on the transactional requirements for their stop along the journey. No one in the K-16 ecosystem is funded to connect the dots and help students through their entire journey. And even those funded to help advise are woefully under-resourced.

3. Juggle multiple campuses A campus environment presents a safe place for a student to learn, and the comfort that comes with getting to know a place allows that learning to thrive. Having to switch to a brand new college disrupts the relationships that student has developed on-campus, deterring their future success.

4. Front-loaded services Most institutional services are designed to support a student at the beginning of their education, such as required advising for first-time registration and first-year success courses. When a student starts at a new college as a transfer, many of these services evaporate, such as opportunities for students to meet other students and early success courses.

5. Inefficiency Being a student at two institutions means double the login names, email addresses, and passwords. Course registration timelines are also different, meaning a student might need to wait for a course to transfer before being able to register, at which time classes may have already filled up and be unavailable.

A single college presents students with a closed, end-to-end experience, from entry to attainment. Because transferring involves two institutions, these experiences are broken up, creating obstacles, or seams, for the transfer pathway. Each different institution is like having to catch a connecting flight; a seamless pathway would offer nonstop service.


Making Transfer Pathways Seamless

Community colleges and four-year colleges were each founded to serve different purposes. In the historical timeline of higher education, it’s a fairly recent concept that a student might enter one and transfer to the other. But colleges haven’t caught up to this growing interest among students, and it’s time they start working together and make these pathways seamless.

A lot of work has already been done in this arena, but on a smaller scale: guided transfer pathways, articulation agreements, and transfer advising, to name a few. We want to build on this work by taking it to the next level, asking what it might look like to bring all parts of the student journey together, the community college and the four-year, and perhaps even the student’s high school or employer, to rethink, redesign, and wholly recreate the transfer experience.


Are you anxious to help solve this problem?

If you think your institution could benefit from transforming transfer pathways—whether you’re a community college or a four-year college—we want to work with you!

Want more information? Click here to learn more.

Ready to apply? Click here to access the RFP.

Want to talk to someone? Contact project lead Binh Do at