Once upon a time, community colleges, originally known as junior colleges, were meant as places where many students would attend for two years, earn an associate’s degree, and then transfer to a four-year college. Leaders in traditional four-year institutions championed the idea of junior colleges because professors at B.A.-granting institutions didn’t want to be bothered with teaching general survey classes common in the freshman and sophomore years of college. The movement from two-year to four-year institutions was meant to be seamless.
But today, only 10% of students who enter a community college eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. There are many reasons for this low transfer and completion rate—including inadequate financial aid and growing economic and racial segregation between the two- and four-year sectors—but one important impediment is the difficulty in transferring credits from one institution to another.
This morning, I attended a terrific discussion at the Center for American Progress highlighting programs in several states to make the transfer of credits easier. Improving “articulation agreements” between institutions doesn’t command the attention of people the way, say, Congressman Anthony Weiner’s latest Twitter photo does. But the small audience at CAP was treated to an important discussion of programs that are boosting social mobility and college completion.
According to an issue brief written by CAP’s Louis Soares and others, community-college students who transfer to four-year institutions end up wasting a lot of time and duplicating efforts because credits at two-year institutions aren’t always counted. “The average community college student,” Soares and colleagues note, “is forced to amass 140 credits while pursuing a bachelor’s degree even though only 120 credits are typically necessary. Those 20 extra credits represent individual time, effort and money,” as well as wasted public investment. According to Frank Chang, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges at the U.S. Department of Education, the inability to transfer credits also represents a “consumer protection” issue.