Education Department Navigates “Broken” Transfer System

Nearly 80% of community college students report that they intend to finish their academic careers by completing a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year institution. So why are the majority not meeting their goal? A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) sheds light on this troubling trend and proposes solutions to fix the “broken transfer system in higher education.”

According to a recent report released by the department, between 2014 and 2022, only five states — New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Maryland, and Virginia — have a bachelor’s degree completion rate of 15% or more for those who start at community colleges. Within that time frame, 16 states had completion rates of less than 10% for transfer students. The lowest ranking state, South Dakota, was at only 3.8%.

One of the main reasons for the disparity between intended and actual completion, according to the department, is a high number of nontransferable credits between two and four-year institutions. Community college students lose an estimated 22% of credits, on average, when transferring to four-year public colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“Those students who do successfully navigate the process are not representative of community college students in general: a near-majority of community college students transferring to highly selective institutions come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution,” a September 2023 ED report, “Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education,” reads.

“As a result of the broken transfer system in higher education, students may never transfer, may lose momentum from lost credits, or may be unable to earn an intended bachelor’s degree, potentially leaving students with debt but no degree to pay for it.”

“Our current higher education system stacks the deck against community college students who aspire to earn four-year degrees.— denying acceptance of their credits, forcing them to retake courses, and ultimately making their educational journeys longer and costlier than they need to be.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

The success of community college transfer pathways is reliant on the development of strong relationships and shared goals between two- and four-year institutions, and the support of federal and state policymakers. To address disparities and enhance transfer outcomes, it is essential for institutions to implement effective credit articulation policies, consistent and accurate advising, and student-centered appeal procedures, according to the ED’s policy experts.

“Our current higher education system stacks the deck against community college students who aspire to earn four-year degrees — denying acceptance of their credits, forcing them to retake courses, and ultimately making their educational journeys longer and costlier than they need to be,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a November press release.

Additionally, the ED urges the creation of statewide frameworks, such as common course numbering and transfer associate degrees, which can contribute to a more supportive environment for transfer students and create better educational opportunities for diverse student populations.

This approach has taken hold in Louisiana, which ranked 46th among all states in bachelor’s degree completion overall, at only 7.9%. In December 2023, the Louisiana Board of Regents implemented new transfer pathways to streamline the process for students at two-year colleges to earn four-year degrees. The plan allows those at in-state community colleges to transfer 60 hours of coursework to any public university in Louisiana offering a related bachelor’s program.

The initiative aims to reduce costs and time to degree completion, providing assurance that credits from community colleges will transfer seamlessly to public universities. So far, 24 subject-specific transfer pathways have been approved, and there are plans to extend the initiative to other subjects. The changes will take effect in the fall 2024 semester.