New research reveals that students who transfer from community college are 30 percent less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than their four-year university counterparts — even when they’re of equal academic caliber.
The recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which studied college-bound Georgia students, found that the trend is especially true when students come from a low-income background.
Though the causes are not yet known, one implication of the study is clear, researchers say: Low-income students do not receive the resources they need in high school.
“We have clear evidence that low-income students do not attend the highest quality colleges available to them,” said Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith, policy research scientists with the College Board and co-authors of the report, in an email.
This phenomenon, termed “undermatching,” begins with the college application process, which low-income students find particularly difficult to navigate.
Income disparities and undermatching are two key components of the low bachelor’s degree attainment rate in the U.S. — at least for highly skilled students, according to the report.
“On the other hand, overmatching does not carry any penalties, and in fact, might be beneficial for bachelor’s-aspiring students,” said Hurwitz and Smith.
But Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College system, said studies show that students experience success in four-year colleges as long as they complete their associate’s degree before transferring.
“And not all of our students come to us with the intention of obtaining four-year degrees,” said Ralls. “They receive two-year degrees or certificates and can go on to make just as much as someone with a B.A.”
That being said, Ralls added, growing tuition rates within the UNC system is not making the transfer process any easier.
“UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the best four-year colleges for low income students in the country. In fact it’s in our constitution that higher education be as free as is practically possible,” said Ralls.
“But our working-class students are beginning to wonder what’s practically possible.”
Bill Schneider, associate vice president of research and performance management for the system, said the key to high completion rates lies in articulation agreements — which are statewide agreements governing the transfer of credits between N.C. community colleges and public universities.
“North Carolina articulation agreements are among the strongest in the country,” Schneider said. “That being said, our students come from different backgrounds. They have families; they have jobs; they have more to worry about than just school.”
UNC junior Rebecca Jade Smith is a community college transfer student who participated in the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program, or C-STEP. She strongly advocates for community college despite the working paper's findings.
Smith said that C-STEP has helped make the transition to UNC easier.
“I was accepted to UNC’s C-STEP after my senior year of high school, which really smoothed over the entire process,” Smith said. "I couldn't imagine moving away to college as an 18-year-old."
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