Is the Community College Transfer Pipeline Changing?
The outlook for community colleges has not been promising in recent years. News headlines have featured declining funding, enrollments, and impact on the populations these schools are intended to serve. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), overall enrollment at U.S. community colleges dropped from 6.5 million to 5.8 million between 2010 and 2017, a total decline of 11%.
At the same time, another storyline about community colleges has emerged. It is one of middle-class, often white, families who increasingly take advantage of the lower tuition at community colleges before transferring to four-year schools. NCES data seems to support this story. Between 2010 and 2017, enrolled community college students under 18 years grew from 565,000 to 932,000, or a remarkable 65%.
So, in terms of this key prospective student population, what has the media gotten right and what have they overlooked? More importantly, what does this mean for four-year schools looking to boost enrollment with more transfers?
State of the Union
Let’s begin with the big picture. Figure 1 examines changes in undergraduate enrollment at public two-year, public four-year, and private four-year institutions. We wanted to understand how enrollment has changed in recent years—particularly transfer enrollment.
Notably, Figure 1 confirms the declining enrollment at public two-year schools (i.e., community colleges). But it also reveals a surprising development. While in total numbers, public four-year institutions still enroll the largest proportion of transfer students (43% in 2017), transfer student enrollment at private nonprofits increased substantially between 2012 and 2017—by 23% compared to 6% at public four-year schools and 4% at private for-profit schools.
This indicates that private, nonprofit institutions have discovered transfer student recruitment as a valuable tool. In return, this gives transfer students more options to choose from—and possibly more headaches as they work out how many of their credits might transfer to various schools.
Is this a sign of the frugal middle-class family who chooses to start at a two-year institution to save on tuition cost?
Who is “The Transfer Student”?
According to Eduventures’ 2018 Survey of Admitted Students, 17% of respondents indicated they were enrolling in a community or junior college. Of these students, 70% reported that they were planning on transferring and completing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution—a clear indicator that the majority of traditional-aged students at community colleges see their enrolling school as a stepping stone rather than a final destination.
The question is: Who are they?
Table 1 compares students who enrolled at community college with plans to transfer, students who only plan to obtain an associate degree or certificate, and students who enrolled at four-year institutions, both public and private.
Table 1: Key Characteristics of Community College and Four-Year Institution Enrollees
Plans to Transfer
No Transfer plans
|Average High |
A or Above
|Household income |
Source: Eduventures 2018 Survey of Admitted Students
Table 1 shows that students starting out at community colleges with their eyes on a bachelor’s degree are still often first-generation students, and more racially diverse than students at four-year institutions or community college students without transfer plans. They also report lower grades and household incomes than students at four-year institutions, which may be strong motivators for the educational path they chose.
In summary, our data suggests that community colleges still primarily serve the diverse populations they are known to serve.
What about those frugal, middle-class students?
Does that mean that the media over-hyped the story of the frugal, middle-class community college student? Looking further into our Survey of Admitted Students data, we find some evidence that there may be a population of students that meets the description of the frugal shopper. To uncover this elusive student, we need to break out the data by access factors, as we do in Table 2.
Table 2. Community College Students with Transfer Plans – Characteristics by Access Factors*
|One Access |
|Two Access |
|Average High |
A or Above
|Describes enrollment |
“value for the money”
|Largest influence in|
|Parents (68%)||Parents (55%)||Parents (47%)||High school
*Access Factor = First generation, low income, or underrepresented minority
Source: Eduventures 2018 Survey of Admitted Students
As it turns out, they do exist—the white, middle-class students for whom community college is a good value on their way to a bachelor’s degree – although not in great numbers. While affordability was the primary enrollment reason (44%) for students across all access factor segments, students without any access factors are far more likely to consider their chosen path a good “value.”
Most often, their parents played a large role in the enrollment decision. Importantly, the fact that their high school grades are only slightly above the grades of their community college peers, and far below those of students at four-year institutions. Besides cost, academic readiness appears to be a significant factor for these families. But again, this type of student is in the minority at community colleges.
The Bottom Line
Certainly, community college enrollment has waned in recent years—not a welcome statistic for colleges seeking to boost transfer numbers. But the number of traditional-aged students attending community college have also increased, blunting some of this impact.
It is unlikely, however, that the middle-class white students are largely responsible for this effect. While the media are not wrong about their existence, the impact they have on community colleges—and the four-year schools seeking transfers—is likely quite small.
Finally, while some public schools may blame these overall enrollment trends on waning transfer populations, there is also growing competition for these students from private institutions. And, perhaps, a little competition could be a good thing … for the students.
Stay tuned for more analysis and research on this important student population.
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