tracking outcomes for transfer students
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Tracking Outcomes for Transfer Students

What research tells us about students who transfer out of community college

Forty-percent of first-time freshmen begin their education at community colleges. However, a large percentage of those freshmen plan to transfer to other schools before they finish their degrees. In a coordinated study, the National Student Clearinghouse Center and others have begun to investigate postsecondary transfer outcomes, allowing us to track transfer and completion rates for a large number of students.

Tracking the progress of transfer students is an essential part of evaluating whether strategies designed to help them succeed are working. This research will establish some up-to-date metrics states can use to measure progress and define successful transfer partnerships. Recently the researchers published a three-year update on the cohort of degree-seeking students who started at community colleges in 2010. The results are extremely informative.

Overall completion and transfer rates

The study tracks transfer and completion students over a six-year period. The average completion rate for the cohort of students who started degrees at community college in 2010 was 13.3 percent. This includes the students who transferred out, about a third of the starting class. The students were also more likely to take a bit longer to finish their degree, as not all coursework transferred readily to a new institution.

Gender differences in transfer and completion

Women attending community college are marginally more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years (14% vs. 12%). They are also more likely to transfer after earning credential from a community college, and slightly more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree after transferring. Women do a bit better in academia overall, so this makes sense. However, knowing about the gender disparity can inform interventions.

Income impacts transfer and completion rates

Out of all starting students, twice as many high-income students completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. Low-income students completed their degrees at a rate of 9.0 percent, while 19.6 percent of high-income students earned a bachelor’s degree. About 40% of high-income students also transferred to other institutions compared to a quarter of low-income students.

These numbers only confirm what we might expect based on previous studies, but it underscores the urgency of better support for low-income students. Interventions for these students might improve completion rates overall.

Part-time students struggle to complete their degrees

Students who transfer out of community college, but only take classes part-time, do not do well. About sixty percent of students who transferred into full-time programs graduated. Only 8.3 of exclusively part-time students do the same. Even students who are only full-time for a portion of their undergraduate career do much better. Nearly forty percent of those students graduate.

Barriers to completion after transferring from a community college

The report suggests that community college students may struggle with completing a degree after they transfer for a number of reasons. Students may be academically unprepared or might struggle with the cultural differences between two and four-year institutions. However, one of the biggest barriers to transfer success is the lack of articulation agreements.

Students who have completed credits at a community college may find that many of their hard-won credits won’t transfer. Students are forced to retake classes, adding years to their degree and accumulating more student debt in the process. An articulation agreement between institutions can make a huge difference. More such agreements between community colleges and other institutions might improve graduation rates for transfer students.

The upshot: Tracking transfer and completion rates matters

This critical research is an important step towards improving outcomes for community college students who transfer to other schools. Without a comprehensive understanding of which students are struggling, administrators and legislators cannot know which interventions are likely to succeed or whether they are working. Tracking transfer and completion rates matter.

The number of students beginning degrees at public two-year institutions, particularly from Generation Z, is also an encouraging sign for community colleges worried about enrollment. Making community colleges the best place to start a degree will help keep enrollment rates healthy. Students already benefit from beginning a degree at community college and improving transfer outcomes only adds value.

If you’re interested in improving your marketing to high school students, check out our SmartStart campaign. It has short, punchy articles, infographics, and content that speaks to their interests. SmartStart is a great way to reach a new generation of college students interested in beginning a degree at community college.


Shapiro, Doug, Afet Dundar, Faye Huie, Phoebe Khasiala Wakhungu, Xin Yuan, Angel Nathan, Youngsik Hwang. “Tracking Transfer: Measures of Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students to Complete Bachelor’s Degrees.” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Signature Report. Sept 2017. Web. Retrieved from