Research shows that only about 10 percent of students who enter community colleges end up getting a bachelor’s degree, even though surveys find that between 50 and 80 percent of incoming community college students have that goal. The very low transfer and completion rates are enormously problematic on a number of different levels.
For one thing, given that increasing numbers of students are choosing to begin tertiary education at community colleges, the low transfer rate will severely hamper the efforts of higher education to meet the projected growing demand for more employees with bachelor’s degrees.
For another, the low rate of transfers weakens community colleges themselves. To the extent that two-year institutions become widely known as places where very few students eventually go on to earn B.A.’s, middle- and upper-middle-class students are likely to shy away from community colleges. This flight, in turn, could further weaken the political and cultural capital of the two-year sector. (Research finds that this is already happening.)
Likewise, low transfer rates hamper the efforts of more selective colleges to maintain and increase racial and socioeconomic diversity. The lack of socioeconomic diversity at the nation’s most selective 146 institutions—where wealthy students outnumber low-income students by 25:1—has long been a national disgrace. And new threats to racial affirmative action in the courts suggest that selective four-year institutions may need to find new ways to build diversity. One way is to providing an admissions preference to promising students currently enrolled in community colleges, 42 percent of whom are the first in their family to attend college, and 45 percent of whom are from an underrepresented racial minority group.