The U.S. postsecondary education system provides students with many flexible pathways to earning a bachelor’s degree. One of the most important of these is the opportunity to start a degree at a community college and transfer to a four-year degree program. Community colleges provide access to postsecondary education in diverse geographies (urban, rural, suburban), are open access and low cost, and offer an array of programs and credentials focused on both immediate employment and subsequent degree attainment through transfer to a four-year institution.1 However, while nearly 80 percent of community college students say they intend to transfer and eventually earn bachelor’s degrees,2 actual transfer and degree completion rates are a challenge: only 16 percent of students who start in community colleges ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, with lower rates for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color.3 Addressing this gap can help save students time and money in getting a degree, and will help diversify baccalaureate pathways because over half of students of color and low-income students start in the two-year sector.4 The latter is especially important in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling severely limiting the use of race in college admissions. The U.S. Department of Education (Department) has developed a resource guide for states and institutions to identify key strategies to improve the transfer system and completion rates.5
In this blog, we use data from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) at the U.S. Department of Education to measure the performance of the U.S. postsecondary education system in providing a pathway for students who start at community colleges to eventually graduate with bachelor’s degrees. We constructed a sample of roughly 620,000 students from all 50 states who received Title IV aid and enrolled in a community college as their first postsecondary institution in 2014.6 We followed these students for 8 years across multiple institutions and observed whether they successfully transferred from their initial community college and whether they subsequently obtained degrees from predominantly bachelor’s-granting institutions to measure the performance of both sending and receiving institutions.7 We also examined the role that pairs of community colleges and four-year institutions – or dyads – play in transfer student outcomes. We share these results at the state- and institution-level to inform state transfer policy and local implementation of transfer policies and practices.
State and Institution-Level Findings
Overall, we find that 13 percent of Title IV students that start at community colleges ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees within eight years, but with considerable variation across states.8 Figure 1 shows this variability, with some states (New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia) having much higher community college BA attainment than average. Though not shown here, state rankings are very similar for Pell students specifically.
Both two- and four-year institutions play a key role in determining this overall state transfer performance. While community colleges provide the onramp to the pathway, public- and private- four-year institutions provide the destination and support for students to complete their bachelor’s degrees. A state’s performance depends on both its two-year and four-year sectors’ performance, meaning a state can only perform well overall if both its community colleges are adept at preparing and sending transfer students and its four-year institutions are successful in enrolling and graduating them.
We measured the performance of the two- and four-year sector in each state with two metrics. For each state, we calculated the rate at which students who start at a public, certificate- or associates-granting institution ever transfer to a predominantly bachelors-granting institution within eight years. We call this the state’s “transfer-out rate” or “Access” for short.Next, we compute the rate at which students who transferred from a community college go on to earn a degree from a four-year institution within eight years of initially starting community college. We call this the “transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate” or “Success,” where we emphasize the metrics presented here capture just one dimension of institutional performance and not a comprehensive assessment of whether an institution is successfully fulfilling its mission or helping its students attain their goals.9 A states’ community college BA completion rate is the product of these two state-level metrics. The performance of individual institutions along these two metrics contribute to the state-level performance of the two-year and four-year sectors, which in turn determines the overall state transfer performance shown in Figure 1. Figure 2 illustrates how high levels of both access and success are necessary for a state to have high overall performance. For example, Illinois has similar access levels to other states, however Illinois has significantly higher success and consequently is the third highest state overall in Figure 1.
To better understand the role of specific institutions in generating these state-level rates, we compute institution-specific versions of the transfer-out rate (for community colleges) and the transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate (for four-year colleges).10
Tables 1 and 2 report the community college and four-year institution in each state that have the highest transfer-out rate and the highest transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate, respectively.11,12 Even across the top institutions in each state there are considerable differences in these metrics. Among the community colleges with the states’ top transfer-out rates the average is about 38 percent, but they range from 71 percent down to 19 percent. Among the four-year institutions with the top transfers’ bachelor’s completion rates, the average is 66 percent, ranging from 89 percent down to 30 percent. Thus, even among the top performing institutions in each state, there is still a wide range of performance across institutions. The Department is releasing a complete list of all community colleges and four-year institutions in each state that have a sufficient number of students to be able to compute the transfer-out rate and the transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate, respectively.13 This list can be found here.
The Importance of Partnerships
The above metrics are measured at institutions separately, though an institution’s performance is influenced by the policies of the state in which it is located and policies and practices of potential partner institutions. For instance, co-located two-year and four-year institutions with strong transfer policies in place, such as common course numbering systems or articulation agreements, will mutually benefit both institutions. Given the codependence of individual two- and four-years’ performance, it is important to understand the role of these relationships in improving overall transfer performance.
The documented success of institutional partnerships – such as Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University’s ADVANCE or the Valencia Community College and University of Central Florida’s DirectConnect programs – illustrate that the relationships between pairs of institutions may play a key role in facilitating efficient transfer. To investigate this further, we measure the performance of institution “dyads” in each state and describe how they contribute to overall state transfer performance.
We define a dyad as a pair of institutions consisting of a public community college and a public or private four-year institution. Rather than look at all possible combinations of all two- and four-year institutions, we restrict the set of dyads we analyze to pairs of institutions where there is reasonable potential to have many students transfer between them. We do this by creating pairs of institutions where the share of students who send FAFSA information to a community college that also send to a specific 4-year institution is high, which we refer to as FAFSA sending overlap.14 Within a dyad, we measure transfer performance as the share of students who start at the dyad’s community college that go on to eventually graduate from the dyad’s four-year institution. We call this metric the dyad bachelor’s completion rate.15 As with the institution performance metrics, there is considerable variation in performance across the top dyad in each state, listed in Table 3. Among the states’ top dyad bachelor’s completion rates the average is about eight percent, but these range from 20 percent down to one percent.
States’ overall performance seems to be driven in part by the performance of dyads within each state, particularly involving large community colleges. In Figure 3 we compare the ranking of states from Figure 1 to the performance of the dyads in each state. We include dyads formed by the five highest enrollment community colleges in each state and for each community college the four-year institutions with the highest FAFSA sends overlap. We label an illustrative high and low performing dyad in each state. States with lower overall transfer performance, such as Ohio, tend to have lower performance among their largest dyads. Whereas states with higher overall transfer performance, such as Virginia and California, tend to have higher performance among their largest dyads. Some pairs of institutions with known partnerships, such as Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, have particularly high rates. We interpret this as suggestive evidence that having high-performing dyads in a state may contribute to overall transfer performance. This figure also illustrates that, even within high performing states, dyads differ considerably in their transfer performance.
The potential for the U.S. postsecondary education system to provide an effective pathway from community colleges to the baccalaureate depends on a complex system of relationships between state policies, the community college and four-year sectors, and individual institutions within these states. The considerable difference in transfer performance among states is not just a function of community colleges and four-year institutions acting in isolation. In addition to enacting and implementing effective state transfer policy, state differences also derive in part from differences in the performance of partnerships between institutions in the community college and four-year sectors. An important step in understanding what makes for an effective transfer system is understanding what makes a dyad a high performer. Investigating the features of top performing dyads may unlock new insights into understanding how to improve the performance of dyads that have unrealized potential to improve transfer student completion.
|State||Institution (entity) name||Transfer-out Rate: Share of 2-year starters ever enrolled in 4-year institution within 8 years||Number of students starting in 2-year cohort in 2014||Number of 2-year cohort students ever enrolled at a 4-year within 8 years|
|AL||Marion Military Institute||62%||149||93|
|AR||NorthWest Arkansas Community College||32%||826||263|
|AZ||Chandler-Gilbert Community College||36%||855||308|
|CA||Irvine Valley College||53%||386||205|
|CO||Colorado Northwestern Community College||36%||86||31|
|CT||Norwalk Community College||32%||452||146|
|DE||Delaware Technical Community College-Terry||24%||1450||347|
|FL||Tallahassee Community College||37%||1610||590|
|GA||South Georgia State College||50%||560||281|
|HI||Kapiolani Community College||36%||461||168|
|IA||Ellsworth Community College||46%||229||106|
|ID||College of Southern Idaho||26%||617||162|
|IL||William Rainey Harper College||41%||1048||431|
|KS||Barton County Community College||45%||219||98|
|KY||Hopkinsville Community College||26%||348||92|
|LA||Louisiana State University-Eunice||35%||417||148|
|MA||Massachusetts Bay Community College||39%||451||176|
|ME||Kennebec Valley Community College||27%||191||52|
|MI||Muskegon Community College||34%||556||188|
|MN||Normandale Community College||36%||846||304|
|MO||St Charles Community College||33%||637||210|
|MS||Mississippi Delta Community College||43%||478||206|
|MT||Dawson Community College||52%||65||34|
|NC||Coastal Carolina Community College||31%||309||95|
|ND||Dakota College at Bottineau||41%||106||43|
|NE||Mid-Plains Community College||29%||275||80|
|NH||NHTI-Concord’s Community College||31%||720||226|
|NJ||County College of Morris||48%||717||345|
|NM||New Mexico Military Institute||71%||103||73|
|NV||Western Nevada College||27%||221||59|
|NY||Stella and Charles Guttman Community College||55%||173||95|
|OH||Columbus State Community College||31%||2025||632|
|OK||Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College||39%||444||173|
|OR||Clackamas Community College||29%||475||136|
|PA||Bucks County Community College||44%||700||311|
|RI||Community College of Rhode Island||25%||2172||544|
|SC||University of South Carolina-Sumter||61%||127||78|
|SD||Western Dakota Technical Institute||19%||182||35|
|TN||Motlow State Community College||32%||569||184|
|TX||The University of Texas at Brownsville||49%||1293||628|
|VA||Richard Bland College of the College of William and Mary||47%||245||116|
|VT||Community College of Vermont||23%||491||115|
|WI||University of Wisconsin Colleges||45%||1740||780|
|WV||Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College||26%||338||87|
|State||Institution (entity) name||Transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate (8-year)||Number of community college students transferring within 4 years to BA-granting institution||Number of degrees granted at BA-granting institution among community college students transferring within 4 years|
|AR||University of Arkansas||54%||190||103|
|AZ||University of Arizona||61%||261||158|
|CA||California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo||89%||45||40|
|CO||University of Northern Colorado||60%||102||61|
|CT||University of Connecticut||74%||107||79|
|FL||University of Miami||80%||56||45|
|GA||University of Georgia||72%||81||58|
|HI||University of Hawaii at Manoa||64%||215||137|
|IA||Mount Mercy University||86%||36||31|
|ID||University of Idaho||63%||65||41|
|IL||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||89%||207||184|
|IN||Purdue University-Main Campus||74%||70||52|
|KS||Kansas State University||54%||213||114|
|KY||University of Kentucky||63%||121||76|
|LA||Louisiana State University and A&M College||63%||158||99|
|MA||University of Massachusetts-Lowell||62%||244||152|
|MD||University of Maryland-College Park||76%||331||250|
|ME||University of Southern Maine||54%||82||44|
|MI||University of Michigan-Ann Arbor||88%||68||60|
|MN||University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||67%||248||167|
|MO||Missouri University of Science and Technology||74%||62||46|
|MS||Mississippi University for Women||64%||85||54|
|NC||University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||78%||92||72|
|ND||North Dakota State University-Main Campus||62%||131||81|
|NE||University of Nebraska-Lincoln||60%||139||84|
|NH||University of New Hampshire-Main Campus||58%||76||44|
|NJ||The College of New Jersey||86%||42||36|
|NM||University of New Mexico-Main Campus||43%||222||95|
|NV||University of Nevada-Reno||66%||129||85|
|NY||Saint John Fisher College||78%||54||42|
|OH||Ohio State University-Main Campus||60%||337||202|
|OK||Oklahoma State University-Main Campus||62%||295||184|
|OR||University of Oregon||65%||137||89|
|PA||Thomas Jefferson University||67%||55||37|
|RI||University of Rhode Island||69%||89||61|
|TN||Tennessee Technological University||67%||129||86|
|TX||Texas A & M University-College Station||85%||436||372|
|UT||University of Utah||55%||168||92|
|VA||Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University||87%||135||118|
|WA||Western Washington University||73%||108||79|
|WI||University of Wisconsin-Madison||75%||109||82|
|WV||Fairmont State University||58%||57||33|
|WY||University of Wyoming||60%||119||71|
|State||Dyad name||Dyad bachelor’s completion rate (8-year)||Number of students starting at 2-year in 2014||Number of students starting at 2-year that ever graduate from the 4-year within 8 years|
|AL||Southern Union State Community College X Auburn University||7%||710||47|
|AZ||Chandler-Gilbert Community College X Arizona State University Campus Immersion||12%||855||103|
|AR||NorthWest Arkansas Community College X University of Arkansas||9%||826||71|
|CA||Irvine Valley College X California State University-Fullerton||13%||386||50|
|CO||Pikes Peak State College X University of Colorado Colorado Springs||4%||1233||50|
|CT||Manchester Community College X Central Connecticut State University||5%||681||37|
|DE||Delaware Technical Community College-Terry X Wilmington University||3%||1450||48|
|FL||Tallahassee Community College X Florida State University||12%||1610||197|
|GA||East Georgia State College X Georgia Southern University||12%||686||85|
|HI||Kapiolani Community College X University of Hawaii at Manoa||16%||461||76|
|ID||College of Western Idaho X Boise State University||7%||1062||70|
|IL||Heartland Community College X Illinois State University||13%||433||55|
|IN||Ivy Tech Community College X Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis||1%||9552||116|
|IA||Hawkeye Community College X University of Northern Iowa||8%||686||55|
|KS||Butler Community College X Wichita State University||8%||885||73|
|KY||Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College X Western Kentucky University||7%||454||31|
|LA||South Louisiana Community College X University of Louisiana at Lafayette||8%||620||49|
|ME||Southern Maine Community College X University of Southern Maine||4%||884||34|
|MD||Wor-Wic Community College X Salisbury University||10%||385||39|
|MA||Middlesex Community College X University of Massachusetts-Lowell||11%||990||104|
|MI||Kalamazoo Valley Community College X Western Michigan University||8%||914||77|
|MN||Rochester Community and Technical College X Winona State University||6%||674||43|
|MS||Jones County Junior College X University of Southern Mississippi||4%||757||33|
|MO||Missouri State University-West Plains X Missouri State University-Springfield||11%||290||31|
|NE||Northeast Community College X Wayne State College||6%||585||33|
|NV||Truckee Meadows Community College X University of Nevada-Reno||7%||694||47|
|NJ||Middlesex College X Rutgers University-New Brunswick||9%||1216||114|
|NM||Central New Mexico Community College X University of New Mexico-Main Campus||4%||2134||92|
|NY||CUNY Kingsborough Community College X CUNY Brooklyn College||9%||1826||162|
|NC||Central Piedmont Community College X University of North Carolina at Charlotte||8%||1845||146|
|OH||Columbus State Community College X Ohio State University-Main Campus||8%||2025||160|
|OK||Northern Oklahoma College X Oklahoma State University-Main Campus||7%||527||39|
|OR||Portland Community College X Portland State University||6%||1852||120|
|PA||Bucks County Community College X Temple University||9%||700||60|
|RI||Community College of Rhode Island X Rhode Island College||4%||2172||85|
|SC||Tri-County Technical College X Clemson University||20%||942||187|
|TN||Northeast State Community College X East Tennessee State University||8%||668||51|
|TX||Blinn College District X Texas A & M University-College Station||12%||2311||272|
|UT||Snow College X Utah State University||5%||602||33|
|VA||Northern Virginia Community College X George Mason University||13%||3766||503|
|WA||Seattle Central College X University of Washington-Seattle Campus||13%||259||33|
|WI||Northeast Wisconsin Technical College X University of Wisconsin-Green Bay||5%||879||40|
1. This blog and subsequent analysis focuses on the role of community colleges in facilitating bachelor’s degree completion for students. For a broader view of the many goals and roles of community colleges, see Cohen, A., Brawer, F., & Kisker, C. (2013). The American Community College, Sixth Edition. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
2. Community College Research Center, “Policy Fact Sheet: Community College Transfer,” 2021.
3. Forthcoming findings from CCRC analyses of NSC data, 2023.
4. https://sites.ed.gov/ous/files/2023/09/Diversity-and-Opportunity-in-Higher-Education.pdf and ED analysis of NPSAS:20 data.
5. For a recent summary of the research on factors and policies influencing community college transfer success that undergirds these strategies, see Soliz, A. & Mesa, H. (2023). Improving community college to university transfer. Education Finance and Policy. Forthcoming. Available at https://www.adelasoliz.com/s/SolizMesa-Transfer-Essay-2023.pdf
6. We include public postsecondary institutions whose predominant credential granted is either a certificate or Associate’s degree in our definition of community colleges. Institutions in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia are excluded.
7. For expositional ease we refer to earning a degree from a predominately bachelor’s granting institution as “earning a bachelor’s,” though this will miss students that earn bachelor’s degrees from community colleges.
8. This overall rate is slightly lower than the share of all students (Title IV and non-Title IV) cited above from CCRC analysis, but differences in sample, degree measurement, and time horizon make the numbers not directly comparable to each other.
9. For the cohort we study we only have data on the institution from which students graduated – not the actual degree received – so the bachelor’s completion rate refers to students completing a degree at a predominantly bachelor’s granting institution.
10. Transfer-out rate for specific community colleges is measured the same as for the state overall, albeit with only enrollees at the focal community college included in the numerator and denominator. The transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate is more complicated to measure at the institution level. For each predominantly bachelor’s-granting institution, we first identified the cohort of individuals who started at a community college and transferred to that institution within 4 years. We then calculated the share of this cohort who graduated from the specific four-year institution within eight years of initially starting community college.
11. An important caveat to these rates is that they do not capture the magnitude of students who are transferring or graduating. For instance, at the top community college in Virginia, Richard Bland College of the College of William and Mary, 116 of its students ever enroll at a 4-year institution. Whereas at Northern Virginia Community College 1609 students ever enroll at a 4-year institution.
12. We only calculate rates for institutions that have at least 30 students in our sample in both the numerator and denominator. If a state does not have an institution that meets this requirement in our sample, then they are omitted for the rankings and analyses.
13. Any community colleges with fewer than 30 students in an entering or exiting transfer cohort are omitted. Any four-year institutions with fewer than 30 students in a transfer cohort or fewer than 30 students completing a degree are omitted.
14. Much prior work looking at partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions typically examines dyads that already have a substantial number of students transferring. This approach will fail to identify dyads where there should be more transfers but there are not. In practice, the set of dyads that we identify are nearly identical to the dyads identified by using the observed number of transfers.
15. Like the transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate, the dyad bachelor’s completion rate refers to students completing a degree at the predominantly bachelor’s granting dyad institution because we do not observe the actual degree type students earn.