Making the transition from community college to a four-year degree: Washington does better than most, but data are mixed

New research finds that a high proportion of Washington students who begin their postsecondary education at a community college and transfer out to a four-year school earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. That’s good, but there’s an important caveat: The state ranks low for students making the transition to a four-year school.

The Seattle Times reports on the study:

Only about 13 percent of Washington college students who began their educations in community college in fall 2007 had earned a bachelor’s degree in six years, according to a new report by the Community College Research Center…

About 55 percent of the Washington community college students who transferred to a four-year public college successfully earned a bachelor’s degree, a higher percentage than any other state in the country, and well above the national average of 42 percent.

The press release from the Community College Research Center gives the national overview: 

A new report released today by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University; the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program; and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center finds that across the United States, only 14 percent of students starting in community colleges transfer to four-year schools and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of entry. Even in states with the best track records, only about one in five community college students transfer and graduate within six years of enrolling. In states at the bottom of the list, transfer and graduation rates are in the single digits.

From the report:

Not surprisingly, states that have higher community college cohort bachelor’s completion rates tend to have both higher transfer-in bachelor’s completion rates at their four-year institutions and higher transfer-out rates at their community colleges. None of the states that are in the top 10 in average community college cohort bachelor’s completion rates had below-average transfer-out rates, with the exception of Iowa, which was less than 1 percentage point below the national average. In contrast, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington are in the top 10 nationally in transfer-in bachelor’s completion rates at their public four-year institutions. However, all three have transfer-out rates at their community colleges that are in the bottom 10 nationally. As a result, they are below the national average in bachelor’s completion rates for community college students in the fall 2007 cohort.

Of course, for many students, a community or technical college degree is the desired outcome. Not all careers require a four-year degree, so the importance of that measure may be overstated in the research. Nonetheless, the report spotlights important information for policymakers, particularly in our state where we’ve placed a high priority on community college education. 

The Seattle Times report on the research cited one possible explanation for the low transfer rate.

Jan Yoshiwara, education director for the State Board for Community Community and Technical Colleges, said state researchers have interviewed students who were eligible to transfer but didn’t, and found that most of them were working adults raising young children. Because of job and family obligations, these students couldn’t move to Pullman, or Bellingham, or Ellensburg to finish their degrees.

Our foundation report documented the importance of higher education to individuals and communities.

For individuals, the results are clear. Higher education pays off: In 2012, median annual earnings for a full-time worker with a bachelor’s degree were nearly 60 percent higher than those of a worker with only a high school diploma.

As important as it is for individuals, higher education also pays off for communities. A study by The Milken Institute found that adding just one extra year to the average years of schooling among employed workers in a metro area is associated with a real per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increase of 10.5 percent and an increase in real wages per worker of 8.4 percent.

For better-educated workers, the gains are even greater. One additional year of schooling for employed workers with at least a high school diploma is associated with a real per-capita GDP gain of 17.4 percent and a real wage increase per worker of 17.8 percent.

As the Milken scholars write, the benefits accrue at every level of postsecondary education:

It is imperative for regions and states to form or encourage pools of human capital so they can gain sustainable competitive advantages in today’s globally interconnected economy. Consequently, universities, community colleges, and accredited technical and vocational training facilities are critical to regional economic growth and prosperity.