More than 80 percent of community college freshmen in the United States hope to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, research shows, but fewer than one in five reach that goal within six years. Why that is – and what can be done to help more students graduate with bachelor’s degrees – are questions researchers at The City University of New York hope to answer with a $1.4 million grant from the federal Institute of Education Sciences.
The four-year study will focus on community college students, who represent nearly a third of the nation’s post-secondary students, and the extent to which the college transfer process might hinder their momentum toward earning bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges have long been plagued by extremely low graduation rates, but education researchers and advocates have focused mostly on associate-degree graduation.
“CUNY is at the forefront of a national effort to improve associate degree completion for community college students,” said Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz. “This research addresses the next critical step for the success of many of these students: transferring and completing a bachelor’s degree. The grant awarded to Professor Logue and her colleagues will yield insights and generate strategies for colleges across the country to improve transfers and address one of the most vexing problems in higher education.”
“There’s a huge drop-off of students who transfer or plan to transfer from a community college to a bachelor’s-degree college,” said Alexandra Logue, the study’s principal investigator and a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “We have some hints about why that might be but nobody’s done a coherent study of what the most important factors are. There is some evidence that it’s not necessarily the students themselves but the nature of the college transfer process and the obstacles that are put in their way. That’s what we need to find out about.”
The study, titled “A Leaky Pipeline: Community College Students and Pathways to the Bachelor’s Degree,” is a collaboration between CUNY and MDRC, a highly regarded social policy research organization. The researchers will seek to identify the specific stages in the transfer pipeline at which many students stall, as well as the supports that might help keep them on track to transition to higher academic levels.
“What we know is that equivalent students who start at bachelor’s degree programs have a much better chance of getting a degree than students who start at a community college,” Logue said. “We want to come up with a list of what our funders at the Department of Education call ‘malleable factors’ – things that we think we can change in order to help these students get through this leaky pipeline better.”
Logue added that the study identifies several “drop-off points” and that “there are students who go to community college, get good GPAs but never apply to bachelor’s degree colleges. There are also hints that some students are accepted for transfer but never show up at the new college. We want to explore the reasons. Another thing we will look at is the problem of credit transfer: General education credits transfer very well but credits in majors do not and that’s a big issue. And finally, we will look at ‘transfer shock.’ Transfer students often show a temporary decline in GPA for one or two semesters, and that’s where we believe the bachelor’s degree programs may have some responsibility. Colleges have orientations and all kinds of programs to help high school students transition to college, but there’s often less for transfer students. They have to orient themselves, and if they’re coming from a community college it can be intimidating.”
To explore the issue, Logue and her colleagues will survey students and staff and analyze data from across CUNY and conduct focus groups at three of its senior colleges (Brooklyn, Queens and Lehman) and three community colleges (Bronx, Hostos and Guttman). “We’re using CUNY as a laboratory,” Logue said. “We will produce data and identify principles that would apply not only to this university but to post-secondary institutions across the country.”
Logue is the author of Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, a book about the college transfer issue published in 2017. “In previous generations,” Logue said, “people tended to go to one college and graduate from there. Students today transfer a lot more. More than half of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree have credits from somewhere else. At CUNY, more than half of the graduates from every senior college did not start out at that college. But for too many students, transfer seems to inhibit graduation. That’s why it’s so important for us to understand the factors responsible for the leaky pipeline.”
The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in 1847, CUNY counts 13 Nobel Prize and 23 MacArthur (“Genius”) grant winners among its alumni. CUNY students, alumni and faculty have garnered scores of other prestigious honors over the years in recognition of historic contributions to the advancement of the sciences, business, the arts and myriad other fields. The University comprises 25 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, CUNY Graduate Center, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, CUNY School of Law, CUNY School of Professional Studies and CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The University serves more than 275,000 degree-seeking students. CUNY offers online baccalaureate and master’s degrees through the School of Professional Studies.