Many community college students plan to transfer to a four-year college, but few succeed. Closing the transfer gap is critical to closing opportunity gaps.

Transferring From Community College to University


  • Community colleges offer affordable education and a sense of place to minority students.
  • Most community college students want to transfer to a four-year university, but few do.
  • Closing the "transfer gap" is key to achieving equity in higher education.

Most jobs, including most of the highest-paying positions, require at least a bachelor's degree. While there are a growing number of paths to a bachelor's, one of the most affordable is to attend a two-year college and then transfer to a four-year school. Many low-income and underserved students start out at a community college with the intent of transferring to a four-year university.

Community college also serves as an important entry point to higher education for underrepresented groups. Minority and first-generation students at two-year colleges report a higher sense of belonging than those at four-year institutions. In 2014, community colleges enrolled 56% of all Hispanic and 44% of all Black postsecondary students in the U.S.

Given community colleges' racial diversity, improving the transfer handoff is key to improving equity in education. Of the 80% of community college students who intend to transfer, just 23% successfully do so within six years.

But current and promised shake-ups to higher education could help narrow this transfer gap. Community colleges nationwide have developed vertical transfer programs with nearby four-year colleges to give underprivileged students better access. Some institutions, including the University of California system, are shifting away from standardized testing and setting new goals for admitting and retaining more diverse students.

Students of Color Disproportionately Fall in a "Transfer Gap"

Community colleges serve a highly diverse student population. More than half of all Native American, Hispanic, and Black undergraduates, and nearly half of all Asian American undergraduates attend community colleges.

However, the same diversity does not exist at the four-year level. While the overall transfer rate for community college students is low — just a quarter of those who want to attend a four-year school succeed — studies show that the transfer gap is clearly racial. White community college students are 71% more likely to transfer than students of color.

“Community colleges are among the most diverse institutions in American higher education. This diversity manifests [in] … various types of students that community colleges serve, the leadership they employ, and the resources and curriculum they provide for the community.”

Community college students often face similar barriers to education. Many are first-generation students who must navigate the complexities of higher education all by themselves.

A large number also attend school part time while working and caring for family. Nearly half of public two-year college students hold down a job. Research shows that having to juggle both professional and family responsibilities negatively impacts community college transfer.

These "environmental pull" factors can draw community college students, particularly underrepresented minority students, away from the college environment before they're able to meet their educational goals.

Improving Transfers From Community Colleges to Four-Year Universities

Almost 40% of students who transfer to four-year colleges come from community colleges. Transferring colleges is doable, and there's increasing pressure on higher education to innovate how the process is accomplished.

Many community colleges partner with nearby four-year institutions — public and private, less selective and more selective — to provide an alternative bridge to bachelor's degrees for underprivileged students. These vertical transfers are an early preview of what progressive education policy describes.

“[T]he two-year college system has always been a place for students to begin, but now more than ever, they recognize the value in streamlining programs to create fluid pathways for long-term student success.”

Chet Jordan and Anthony Picciano, Authors of “Post-Recession Community College Reform”

Creating what authors Chet Jordan and Anthony Picciano call "fluid pathways for long-term student success" figures into presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's education policy, which proposes an interconnected higher education system with links between vocational schools, community colleges, four-year institutions, and employers.

Biden plans to turn schools that serve low-income students into community hubs offering wraparound services such as childcare and healthcare, in addition to expanded access to technology. These support resources aim to improve college outcomes for underrepresented students.

The Benefits of Attending Community College

According to a May 2020 survey, nearly 50% of parents say that the coronavirus outbreak led their children to change their post-high school educational plans. New safety and family priorities have altered lives, but it's the financial backlash that has affected Black and Hispanic students' plans the most.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the educational paths of people of color. Just 43% of white families report changing their children's post-high school plans, compared to 59% of Black families and 61% of Hispanic families.

More than half of Black and Hispanic families report changing their children's post-high school plans as a result of the coronavirus.

With college tuition at new highs — and potentially further increases due to schools' financial losses during COVID-19 — the more affordable per-credit cost of community college could attract more students.

In a time of economic uncertainty, community college allows students to keep educational costs down and enter the workforce sooner. But while associate degrees and vocational training can help graduates land solid jobs, better-paying positions and bigger opportunities generally require a bachelor's degree.

Improving educational pathways, including the community college transfer, is vital to building educational equity and a more competitive workforce.