Maintaining the Momentum

Attewell Study Confirms the Importance of Transfer Credits in Earning a 4-Year Degree

American community colleges have long struggled with low graduation rates — and with percep- tions of why it is such an entrenched problem. Nationwide, fewer than half the students who start at two-year colleges eventually earn bachelor’s degrees, and critics have alternately disparaged the caliber of the students and the quality of their two-year education. Others have attributed it to financial circumstances.

But groundbreaking new research led by Paul Attewell, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Urban Education at The CUNY Graduate Center, suggests that a major obstacle is that too many four-year colleges accept too few credits from transferring community college students — putting them in a virtual slow lane to graduation that often leads to an exit ramp.

“More than 40 percent of community college students lose most of their credits when they transfer, and there is a direct correlation between the number of credits a student is able to transfer and the likelihood that student will get a B.A.,” Attewell said. “The greater the loss of credits, the lower the chances.”

Attewell has long studied the student population of “non-elite” colleges, enlisting students in the Ph.D. program in sociology in his research. A year ago, he and a doctoral student, David B. Monaghan, undertook an ambitious study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has been exploring the impact of “academic momentum” — the speed at which students make their way through college — on graduation rates. “We have fairly broad access to college in the U.S., but far more kids are not completing their degrees than students in many other countries,” Attewell said. “We know that academic momentum matters.”

Attewell and Monaghan’s research looked at the transfer process — something that nearly half of American college students now go through at some point, or at several points, on their way to graduation. They focused on the growing number of students who start at community colleges, and in March they published their results in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. The results have gotten national attention for the spotlight they put on the problem of the community college “transfer gap.”

Attewell and Monaghan analyzed complete college transcripts of more than 2,000 students from across the country, tracking their academic journeys over several years. The data, culled from the National Center for Education Statistics, included students in two groups: Those who started at community colleges with the intention of transferring to four-year colleges and completing a bachelor’s degree and, for comparison, students who started at nonselective four-year colleges.

The researchers found that students in both groups accumulated credits at virtually the same rate for the first two

years; Attewell said this discredits the notion that “community college students aren’t college material and start falling by the wayside from the get-go.” But the community college students did start to fall behind in credits in the third year. One reason, he said, is that the community college students were working more hours at jobs, leading some to take fewer classes and others to take a break from school altogether.

But the more striking finding was the number of students who did well academically, earned enough credits to move on to four-year colleges, said they wanted to get a B.A. — but never got there. “There’s a huge attrition at that point,” Attewell said. “There’s a block somehow. They’re not making the jump. We don’t know yet why — that’s the reasonable next step to study. But what we do know is that students lose a lot of credits when they transfer, and it is a reasonable inference that it is a strong factor.

Attewell and Monaghan found that 40 percent of community college students lose most of the credits they’ve earned when they transfer. In 14 percent of cases, four-year colleges accepted virtually none of the students’ credits, essentially forcing them to start over. “These are, on the whole, working students and those credits haven’t come easy,” Attewell said. “Now they’re told they’ve got to redo all those credits.” It’s hard to imagine a bigger blow to academic momentum, Attewell said. “The metaphor is if you ride a bicycle really slowly, it gets harder and harder to stay up and go forward. And if you find yourself going uphill and rolling backward, eventually you fall.”

“We’ve had a cultural shift” away from the traditional course of a college education, Attewell said. “Transfer is the norm now. But the institutions have not caught up with the fact that 50 percent of students who earn B.A.s started somewhere else.”

He cites a report that found that 45 percent of all B.A.s in 2012 were awarded to students who started at a community college. “But transfers are still thought of as aberrant, and they are treated with a certain degree of skepticism. Basically, the attitude in many four-year colleges is, ‘We have a way that we do it, and someone transferring needs to go through our process.’ That worked fine in a world in which transfers were five percent but now it’s actually a punishment against nearly half the nation’s students. Community college enrollment has grown because of higher tuitions of four-year colleges, so it disproportionately hurts the most needy students.”