Rethinking Transfer Pathways

Community College Students Succeed at Selective Institutions

Nearly half of all students begin their postsecondary journey at a two-year community college. Earning a bachelor’s degree is an increasingly essential step towards economic mobility and job security, yet only 14 percent of community college students do so. Even students with strong academic ability fail to transfer. Recent research estimates that more than 50,000 high-achieving community college students from lower-income families are academically ready to transfer but do not — including 15,000 students with a GPA of 3.7 or higher. 

Using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, we examined the transfer patterns of community college students entering four-year institutions, with special attention on selective institutions — that is, institutions classified as “Most Competitive” or “Highly Competitive” due to lower admit rates and higher incoming student grades and test scores. Our findings challenge many of the pervasive narratives about community college students. We learned that: 

1. Community college students are underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. Students transferring from community colleges comprise 15 percent of all four-year entering enrollment, but only seven percent at selective colleges and universities. Private institutions are less likely to enroll community college transfer students than public institutions (3 percent versus 11 percent). 

2. Students who transfer from community colleges to selective colleges and universities are successful. Over 35,000 community college students transfer annually to selective colleges and universities, where they are more likely to graduate within six years than students who enrolled directly from high school or transferred from other four-year institutions. They do so in a reasonable amount of time, earning their degree within two and a half years, on average. 

3. Students transferring to selective colleges and universities come from community colleges across the nation. Fully 84 percent of the nation’s two-year institutions transferred at least one student to a selective four-year institution in fall 2016. Community colleges with larger enrollments, situated in more urban areas, and/or offering honors programs are more likely to transfer students to selective institutions. 

Research has shown that students’ likelihood of completing their bachelor’s degree sharply correlates with socioeconomic background. Students from the top family income quartile are five times more likely than individuals from the bottom income quartile to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 (58 versus 12 percent, respectively).  

Because lower-income students are three times more likely to begin their postsecondary pursuits at a community college than higher-income students, strengthening transfer pathways to selective institutions has the potential to increase bachelor’s completion rates for our nation’s brightest students. It also can help selective higher education institutions diversify their student bodies along lines of socioeconomic status, first-generation status, and age. 

The failure of many students with financial need to earn a bachelor’s degree is a loss not only for their individual career success and mobility, but also a collective loss of talent for the nation. We encourage institutional leaders to use the findings in our full report as a starting point for conversations on increasing opportunity for the many high-achieving community college transfer students around the country. 

Jennifer Glynn, Ph.D. is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. She can be reached at

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline