Why Are Community College Graduation Rates So Low?

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Community colleges don’t see too many of these. | Source: ShutterStock

Community college students are less likely to graduate than students who solely attend four-year colleges. Why is this happening?

A new study reports that plenty of community college students would love to earn bachelor’s degrees, but they can’t transfer all their credits to their new school … and as a result, those credits are lost in the ether, and their community college credits become a waste of money. And the numbers behind this are staggering and disappointing.

CBS News reports, “Roughly 14 percent of transfer students had to start nearly from scratch. Their new institutions accepted fewer than 10 percent of their community college credits. Only 58 percent of transfer students were able to move more than 90 percent of their credits to four-year institutions. The remaining 28 percent of transfer students lost between 10 percent and 89 percent of their credits.”

Uh, yikes. Can you blame these students for not wanting to live like Van Wilder forever? Because that gets expensive.

Students who were actually able to transfer all of their credits saw more than double the graduation rate of their peers who couldn’t transfer their own credits. And interestingly, those community college students who were able to transfer their credits to a four-year university had almost identical graduation rates as those who began their educations at four-year schools.

81 percent of community college students report that they want to earn a four-year degree. Colleges shouldn’t be making it this difficult by screwing those hardworking students over with transfer credits–especially when so many employers demand college degrees for jobs as basic as customer service positions.

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    • Kay_Sue

      58% is still better than 1 in 2. I don’t really know, as someone who’s attended both types of schools, how much that factors into graduation rates from community colleges themselves.

      There’s a lot of other factors too. Community colleges typically accept a wider range of students…including those that aren’t as prepared for college. They typically lack the same network and support system that four year schools, which feature many students from a variety of locations. They (at least in our area) tend to cater to more adult learners, who already have careers that may also get in the way of their education. Less students live on campus. I’d also like to see how many more students work at the community college and don’t graduate versus those that work and do graduate and the numbers among their peers that aren’t employed.

      Another, purely anecdotal reason that I think it is more complicated: Our local community college is a feeder school into a big university in the same city. It’s well known that many students attend and then transfer. To that end, asking if you are going that route is one of the first questions advisors have. They go over detailed lists of what transfers, and what doesn’t. There are entire degree programs that are designed to do nothing more than to funnel students into the equivalent Bachelor’s programs at the four year school. I doubt that they are the only school that does such things, and I don’t think they are in the minority, at least not among nonprofit schools, because these students are important to the success of the school and its reputation.

      On the flip side, I can see how having less credits transfer is in the best interest of larger schools–one reason most of my friends opted to start in community college and move to a larger school is the cost. If they could get the same classes for less, they would, and I can see how larger schools would prefer to have those tuition dollars spent at their own institutions. I do find that highly unethical.

      The credit transfer issue is a big one, and one that needs to be addressed. I’d stop short of assigning it a larger role in the graduation rates of community college students, because it sells short the true complexity of the issue.

    • Alicia Brooke

      It’s your job as a student to take courses that transfer. I started at a local college and transfered to a big university and took all of my credits with me because I spent two seconds looking between the transfer guide and the course calendar. Don’t take, say, graphic design courses if the university you want to transfer to doesn’t have a program like that because it obviously won’t transfer.