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Counting Transfers and Former Community College Students

by Tod Massa 28. March 2015 07:55

The National Student Clearinghouse has released a new snapshot report showing that nearly half of the students finishing degrees at four-year institutions had at least one prior enrollment at community college somewhere in the nation in the previous 10 years. The data for Virginia show that 36,956 students (47%) of 79,456 total graduates had prior community college experience. I think this is fascinating data and demonstrates the importance of community colleges nationally. Unfortunately, I struggle a bit in reconciling it with our data.

I think this struggle is due to a lack of precision in the language used by NSC in the snapshot. My first reaction, perhaps yours as well, is to read the results as 47% of "completers of four-year degrees in Virginia" had previously enrolled at a community college. Instead, the actual language is "completers at four-year institutions" meaning these students completed credentials at any level above the associate's degree. An easy check of this to look at the 79,456 and recognize that Virginia public and nonprofit private institutions awarded only 50,928 bachelor's degrees in 2013-14 with perhaps another 4,000 awarded by for-profit institutions. Clearly, this way short of 79,456 and so when we add in graduate and professional degrees we are much closer.

There are two key pieces about this. First, using total degrees makes much more sense because  we know that we have substantial amount amount of transfers between four-year institutions and thus these numbers would suggest that more than half of our BA/BS graduates are transfers. This is completely out of line with my estimate of about 35% based on an upcoming report. Also, I should note that not everyone with experience at a prior institution is a transfer student. Unless the student provides the institution with information about their prior history and asks for credit for prior work, they are generally not identifiable as a transfer. Also, dual enrollment credits are not considered transfer.

Second, this NSC report implicitly makes a super important point. Students who enroll at community colleges are able to be successful at all levels of higher education. Yes, we already know this anecdotally, but it is much better to be able to see quantitatively. I wish NSC had emphasized this point and broken out the data by degree level. Unfortunately, their collection structure does not allow that.

There is one more point. In 2008-09, Virginia had 27,613 high school students dual enrolled with Virginia community colleges and Richard Bland College. Those students also significantly impact these numbers for bachelor's completion.

Altogether, there are some really powerful stories possible in this snapshot. I wish more of them were told, so I guess it will be up to us to delve a bit a deeper and see what we can learn and then share that with you.



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