For students who transfer, lost credits can doom college hopes

LOS ANGELES Mon Mar 24, 2014 8:27am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Credits lost in the transfer process are a major reason why students who start at community colleges fail to eventually complete a four-year degree, a new study shows.

The research by two City University of New York academics found that one in seven transfer students has to essentially start over because their new institutions accepted less than 10 percent of the credits they earned.

Those able to transfer half or less of their credits are dramatically less likely to get a bachelor's degree, according to doctoral student David B. Monaghan and education professor Paul Attewell of the Graduate Center of the City of New York.

"Community college has become a stepping stone to a four-year degree, especially for lower income students," Attewell said. "Fixing this problem is something that's going to have to be dealt with."

People who aren't savvy about higher education may assume all or most of their the credits they earn will transfer, only to discover that four-year colleges can be extremely picky about which courses actually mattered, said college consultant Todd Weaver.

"It's crazy. Schools are giving people heartburn," said Weaver, of Strategies for College, a Hanover, New Hampshire-based consulting firm. "It's really a challenge."

Researchers have known for years that students who start at two-year colleges are far less likely to complete bachelor's degrees than those who start at four-year institutions. Monaghan and Attewell found a 17 percentage point gap in bachelor's degree completion in their sample, which examined the records of 13,000 first-year, full-time students who said they planned to get bachelor's degrees.

Their paper "The Community College Route to a Bachelor's Degree" was funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation and published on March 19 in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The researchers winnowed out older and part-time students at community colleges as well as those attending highly selective four-year colleges to get a "demographically and academically" similar study group. The students studied were comparable in age, gender, race, income and wealth, although the students enrolled in two-year schools were more likely to have parents with high school diplomas or less while those in four-year schools were more likely to have parents with college educations.

Those students who successfully transferred to four-year schools were about as likely to complete a bachelor's degrees as those who started at four-year institutions and who completed at least four semesters, the researchers found. That finding contradicts earlier researchers' speculation that two-year schools fail to prepare students adequately or that community college students are more likely to flounder after they transfer.

But many two-year students who progressed academically failed to transfer. The researchers found that among those who initially planned to get bachelor's degrees and who accumulated 60 or more credits, only about 60 percent move on to a four-year school.

Digging deeper, the researchers found correlations between lost credits and failure to complete degrees. Students able to transfer 90 percent or more of their credits had odds of graduation that were 2.5 times greater than those able to transfer half or less of their credits. Those who got 50 percent to 89 percent of their credits accepted had a 74 percent greater chance of completing a degree than those able to transfer fewer credits.

The researchers found 58 percent were able to transfer 90 percent or more of their credits, 28 percent were able to transfer 10 to 89 percent and 17 percent transferred less than 10 percent.

PATH FROM COMMUNITY COLLEGES

Some states are trying to address the issue of lost credits by creating guaranteed pathways from their community colleges to their public four-year schools. Massachusetts and Virginia are among those who have guaranteed admission, and credit transfers, for those who fulfill course requirements and maintain minimum grade point averages.

But students have to know such paths exist and take the right courses to follow them, Weaver said, while those attending school in states that don't have such programs need to find out in advance which credits will transfer to their target schools.

"People don't plan. They don't do their due diligence," Weaver said. "They wake up one day and discover they didn't take the requisites they needed for the college."

Researchers Monaghan and Attewell, however, think that's expecting a lot of teenagers who often are the first in their families to attend college.

"They're 17 years old…they don't have a lot of help from their parents, and their advisor might have 300, 400, 500 students in their case load," Monaghan said. "Making solely accountable for their information poverty really isn't fair."

(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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Editing by Lauren Young and Stephen Powell)

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