Thanks to their low cost—about $4,000 a year on average—and open-door admission policies, community colleges have been an important pathway to college for millions of American students for decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80 percent of students enrolling in community college say their goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree.
In fact, spending two years at community college, then transferring to a four-year college for the bachelor’s degree is an excellent way to cut college tuition cost.
But it’s not always easy for students to make the jump to a four-year institution. In fact, only about 15 percent of students who start at a community college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, according to data compiled by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University. By comparison, about 60 percent of students who start at a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. (Note: the federal government calculates college graduation rates over a six-year period.)
Why just 15 percent? For many community-college students, the “two- to four-year transfer process” can be difficult, explains John Fink, a research associate with CCRC. “Sometimes the four-year college won’t accept all the credits. Or they’ll say, ‘We’ll take all 60 credits, but they’ll count as electives,’” notes Fink. So, those students will have to spend extra time (and money) to earn their bachelor’s degree. That can be discouraging enough to prevent them from continuing.
From Community College to a Bachelor’s Degree: 2 Must-Dos
Still, students can successfully start a bachelor’s degree at a community college. They just have to make sure they are on track from the start. And that they stay on track throughout the time they’re at the community college. Here are two must-dos for community college students who want to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.
1. Make The Transfer to a 4-Year College a Priority
Fink says parents should help teenagers seek out community colleges with programs that facilitate transfers to four-year institutions. “Look for intentional partnerships between the community college and the four-year institution,” he says.
Many public universities have such programs in place with their state’s community colleges.
Take Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, which offers a variety of ways for community college students to complete a bachelor’s degree. These include longstanding “articulation agreements” with more than a dozen of the state’s two-year colleges. Under the terms of these agreements, BGSU will accept credits earned at those colleges. Those credits will apply toward a bachelor’s degree. “We have lists of classes that students should take at our partner schools to earn credit at BGSU,” explains Cecilia Castellano, vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at BGSU.
BGSU also offers more than 20 program-specific agreements, in which transfer students start a major at a partner college (options include computer science, early childhood development, and communications) and complete the degree at BGSU. And last year, BGSU took its partnership with community colleges a step further, debuting a new program, called Falcon Express. In this program—available at Ohio’s Owens Community College—students are dually admitted to the community college and BGSU. “So basically as you are earning credits at the two-year college, they are being automatically transferred to BGSU,” explains Castellano. In other words, students are simultaneously earning an associate’s degree and completing their first two years of the bachelor’s degree. No transfer process required.
These are the kinds of “smooth pathways” between community and four-year colleges Fink recommends students and parents seek out. “Programs that offer tailored support and advising,” explains Fink. “And where the college is helping students think through the transfer options.”
2. Work Closely with Your Community College Advisor
Castellano recommends that students who plan to begin their degree at a community college should enlist their advisor’s help right away. “If the ultimate goal is a four-year degree, you want to be upfront in your first meeting with your advisor about planning the transfer,” she says. “Make sure you are talking about that.”
It’s also helpful for students to identify early on the specific four-year college they’d like to attend (again, make sure the community college has an articulation agreement with that school), so they can be sure to take the right classes to get the transfer credit from that particular four-year institution.
Ideally, the community college should provide detailed transfer guides for its partner four-year colleges, says Fink. “These will include recommendations for course sequences and specific notes for those different universities,” he explains.
Remember: which credits will and will not be accepted is determined by the articulation agreement between a community college and the four-year institution your teenager plans to attend, so it’s important for students to pay close attention. Otherwise, your student may end up taking classes that either don’t count toward a desired major—or don’t count at all.
“You really want to be intentional about it,” stresses Castellano.