PDF Version
Executive Summary
The Importance of 2/4 Transfer
The Different Dimensions of Transfer
The Accountability Problem and Transfer “Rates”
Research on State Policy and Transfer
Six-State Focus
    New Mexico
    New York
    North Carolina
Lessons Learned about State Transfer Policy
Conclusions and Recommendations
State Resources
About the Author
The Institute for Higher Education Policy
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

home   about us   news   reports   crosstalk   search   links    

Page 4 of 21


There are many types of student transfer activity within higher education: from community colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions (2/4 transfer); between four- year campuses (4/4); from four-year to two-year campuses (4/2); and between two-year campuses (2/2). The 2/4 community college–baccalaureate transfer function is one of the most important state policy issues in higher education because its success (or failure) is central to many dimensions of state higher education performance, including access, equity, affordability, cost effectiveness, degree productivity, and quality. States that have strong 2/4 transfer performance will have lower state appropriations per degree. They will also do a better job of translating access into success and of reducing achievement disparities that prevent low-income and minority students from obtaining the baccalaureate degree. If the 2/4 transfer function is weak, however, students who initially enroll in a community college will be less likely to earn a baccalaureate degree, and those who do earn their degree will take longer and need more credits to do so.

There is little consensus about how to measure transfer performance, particularly at the statewide level. Disagreements about measurement have helped perpetuate technical as well as ideological arguments about the effectiveness of 2/4 transfer, and different studies using similar databases have produced different assessments. Depending on how “transfer rates” are defined, research can support the finding that transfer students persist and graduate with the baccalaureate at equal or even superior rates to native students (those who remain at and graduate from a single institution); that the transfer function faltered for some time but is now recovering; or that the false promise of transfer “ghettoizes” higher education by funneling high-risk students into poorly financed institutions where they have little hope of getting the resources they need to succeed in higher education. As this paper shows, each of these statements is true for some colleges and some students, but no one of them accurately characterizes state-level performance for any state. This implies that there is an important difference between 2/4 transfer performance and 2/4 transfer accountability. There is a much better understanding of the different dimensions of 2/4 performance at the individual institutional level than there is consensus about 2/4 accountability from a statewide perspective.

The public multipurpose community college, designed to provide academic, vocational, and adult basic and continuing education, is a relatively recent innovation in American higher education. Since the 1960s, most states have embraced baccalaureate transfer as one of the missions of the public community colleges, although the degree of emphasis on baccalaureate transfer varies considerably among institutions and states. Community colleges have been the fastest-growing sector in postsecondary education and likely will soon be the single largest sector, overtaking the public four-year institutions (see figure 1).

Community colleges, designed to promote access through open admission and low tuition, enroll proportionately more low-income students than any other sector of higher education. The strong correlation between race, academic preparation, and income also means that these institutions enroll the largest proportion of students of color, particularly African-American and Hispanic students, as well as students from first-generation immigrant families. Given the current growth in postsecondary enrollment demand (the so-called baby-boom echo), coupled with constraints on state funding, more states are planning to use community colleges as a low-cost alternative to expanding their four-year campuses. The pressure on community college–baccalaureate transfer performance will be especially acute in the Sunbelt states: California is projecting a 21% increase (from 1999 to 2010) in high school graduates, the majority of whom are expected to go on to a community college; Arizona, a 34% increase; Florida, 26%; North Carolina, 20%, and Texas, 12% (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2000).

At the same time that enrollment pressure is increasing, the rising cost of attending public and private four-year colleges and a shrinking proprietary sector may be shifting more low-income students to community colleges. Sticker prices—total tuition and fees—have increased fivefold since 1977, more than twice the rate of inflation. Tuition increases have been the steepest in the private sector, and the growing price gap between public and private institutions has created excess enrollment demand for public four-year institutions in many states, particularly at the “public Ivies.” This demand has, in turn, put more enrollment pressure on comprehensive and community colleges. Some four-year institutions have tried to maintain access through increased institutional financial aid, especially in merit-based rather than need-based aid, which has further exacerbated the net price gap between four-year and community colleges. In times of recession, public tuitions increase even faster, as institutions turn to tuition to replace lost state revenue. These price increases disproportionately affect enrollment by the lowest-income students, sending more of them to community colleges. The grim prediction from economists Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro is that, in the event of a significant economic downturn, the prestigious institutions would be largely unaffected, but, “as always, students from the lowest income backgrounds would be most vulnerable, and their overrepresentation in the community colleges probably would increase” (McPherson and Schapiro, 2001).

Community college enrollments are also influenced by changes in admissions policies at public four-year institutions. In many states, admissions policies at four-year colleges have tightened as institutions have begun to align their entrance requirements with high school graduation standards. The enrollment boom in many states also allows high- demand institutions to be more selective about admissions. Enrollment patterns are also likely to be affected by new postadmission academic screening, placement, and remediation policies—at both two-year and four-year institutions—designed to ensure that all students are capable of doing college-level work.

At the same time, legal pressure on affirmative action has prevented public institutions from using race as a criterion in college admissions. Prior to the rollbacks on affirmative action, the gaps between racial and ethnic groups in high school graduation and college- going rates had begun to narrow, although the gaps in academic preparation as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) remain. However, when we look at students who start college but do not complete the baccalaureate degree, the differences between racial and ethnic groups have remained stubbornly wide (see figure 2).

The biggest single reason for the difference in baccalaureate degree completions is that the majority of students of color who attend postsecondary education initially enroll in public community colleges and do not transfer to complete the baccalaureate degree. Even if the roots of this disparity lie in K–12, the largest barriers to progress are internal to postsecondary education.

The combination of rising prices, changing academic standards, and admissions pressure threatens to increase economic and racial stratification within higher education, with the preponderance of low-income and minority students remaining in community colleges. In this environment, 2/4 transfer becomes a fulcrum for ensuring not just access but also success in baccalaureate degree attainment for poor and minority students. Numerically, 2/4 transfer affects many more students of color than does the more prominent issue of affirmative action admissions in higher education. Important as it is, affirmative action affects only a fraction of academically able students of color, most of whom will enroll in and graduate from college even if they do not attend a highly selective public or Ivy League college. Yet despite its much greater potential impact, improving the effectiveness of the 2/4 transfer function has taken a backseat to the more prominent social debate about admissions at the more elite colleges.


National Center logo
© 2002 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
and the Institute for Higher Education Policy

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications