Blog: An Important but Overlooked Role of Community Colleges

Community colleges serve many known and important roles – providing career or technical training, preparing students to enter four-year institutions, and providing a convenient option for working, adult, or place-bound students. However, there is another role that community colleges fill that may be overlooked: helping students at four-year institutions finish their bachelor’s degrees

ASA Research recently conducted interviews with community college representatives for a report on transfer for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and among its findings, identified a common yet overlooked practice of students from four-year institutions concurrently enrolling in coursework at community colleges (either during the term or while on break) to accelerate their degrees. Community colleges do not receive recognition for this role, however, because these students are never part of a cohort at the community college, and therefore never counted in reporting.

This practice of supplementing four-year institution credits with those from a community college to accelerate one’s degree is different than reverse transfer. There are two definitions of reverse transfer: either a student transfers from a four-year institution to a two-year institution, or a student is retroactively awarded an associate’s degree after transferring from a two-year to a four-year institution. And some national surveys or datasets track whether students graduate from four-year institutions with credits from two-year institutions, but these credits could have been accumulated by traditional transfers – it is not specified whether students earned credits while enrolled at the four-year institution. 

It would be difficult to track this practice of concurrently enrolling in community college courses to facilitate four-year degree completion through existing national datasets, which primarily collect institution-level data. Reporting these nuanced enrollment patterns would likely require a student-level data system, or a survey of institutions to assess the commonality and any recent trends in this practice. Community colleges seeking funding or recognition for their contributions to student success should emphasize this key role they play in facilitating degree completion among four-year institutions. The success rates of community college students often appear to be low based on national data, however it is likely that community colleges are contributing to the success of bachelor’s degree recipients without recognition.