Improving Transfer Outcomes: New Insights to Guide Institutional Partnerships and State Policy

November 27, 2023

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Title: New Measures of Postsecondary Education Transfer Performance: Transfer-Out Rates for Community Colleges, Transfer Student Graduation Rates at Four-Year Colleges, and the Institutional Dyads Contributing to Transfer Student Success

Authors: Nathan Sotherland, Kevin Stange, and Jordan Matsudaira

Source: U.S. Department of Education

New analysis of federal data by the U.S. Department of Education highlights the critical role that community colleges play in providing a pathway to bachelor’s degree attainment, while also revealing significant variation across states and institutions. With over 80 percent of community college students aiming to eventually transfer and complete a four-year degree but only 16 percent achieving this goal within six years, there is substantial room for improvement.

Using a dataset tracking over 600,000 students who first enrolled in community colleges in 2014 over an eight-year period, the analysis finds a bachelor’s completion rate of just 13 percent for this cohort. However, statewide rates range from four percent to as high as 18 percent, underscoring the impact of state policies on college completion.

Breaking down the data further, two key metrics emerge: 1) the community college transfer-out rate, reflecting the share of students who transfer to a four-year institution, and 2) transfers’ bachelor’s completion rate, or the share of transfer students from a given state who graduate within eight years.

There is considerable variation across individual institutions on both metrics, even among top performers in each state. For instance, at top community colleges the transfer-out rates range from 19 percent to 71 percent; at top four-year institutions, transfers’ completion rates range from 30 percent to 89 percent. This indicates significant room for improvement among institutions at the lower ends of these ranges.

Critically, the analysis also reveals the pivotal role of partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. By examining institution “dyads”—pairs of institutions with significant overlap in the students they attract—the data shows that states with higher overall performance also tend to have higher performing dyads. Top dyads demonstrate bachelor’s completion rates for students transferring between the two institutions ranging from one percent to 20 percent, with eight percent as the average.

The authors suggest that improving transfer outcomes requires a two-pronged approach: 1) implementing effective statewide transfer policies, and 2) fostering high-performing institutional partnerships, or dyads. The analysis provides transfer metrics at the state, institution, and dyad levels to inform reform efforts. Further research into the policies and practices underlying the success of top dyads could provide a blueprint for strengthening partnerships and transfer outcomes nationwide. With equitable degree attainment growing increasingly important since the Supreme Court ended race-conscious admissions, ensuring smooth transfer pathways is imperative.

Click here to read the full analysis.

—C. Emmanuel Wright

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