Catching Up in Community Colleges: Academic Preparation and Transfer to Four-Year Institutions
Background/Context: Transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions remains a contentious issue in higher education, with proponents showing that students do indeed transfer to four-year institutions and opponents arguing that starting in community colleges hinders baccalaureate degree attainment. One particularly salient issue in this debate is academic preparation. Although virtually all studies of transfer control for academic preparation, there is a dearth of research focusing on whether and how academically unprepared students can catch up in higher education.
Research Questions: We address two research questions: To what extent do academically unprepared students transfer to four-year institutions? And, can successful completion of intermediate outcomes, such as passing college-level math and writing courses, meeting specific credit thresholds, and earning an associate’s degree, diminish the role of initial preparation and increase the probability of transfer?
Research Design: Using event history techniques, we estimate the likelihood of transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. Analyses include 20,900 first-time degree-seeking students who enrolled in Florida community colleges in the fall of 1998. Student enrollment is tracked through the summer of 2003.
Results: Community colleges can indeed serve as an alternative road of access to four-year institutions, even for academically unprepared students: Almost 20% of students in our sample who entered community colleges unprepared for college-level work made the transition to four-year institutions. Moreover, we found that successful completion of intermediate outcomes, such as passing college-level math and writing courses, meeting specific credit thresholds, and earning an associate’s degree, enhances the probability of transfer. However, the ability of community colleges to mitigate the negative effects of inadequate academic preparation on transfer is limited; regardless of the intermediate outcome completed, academically unprepared students continued to lag substantially behind their more prepared counterparts.
Conclusion: Community colleges can serve as a democratizing force in higher education; however, their ability to overcome inadequate academic preparation with which some students enter higher education is limited. Improving academic preparation in K–12 is thus a crucial component of enhancing transfer.