One of the knocks on community colleges is that many students who might have succeeded in completing a four-year college degree are unable to weather the college transfer process. They get their associate’s degree, but not their bachelor’s. Indeed, back in 2009, Bridget Terry Long and Michal Kurlaender found hard evidence that starting at a two-year college lowers the probability of bachelor’s degree attainment. (Students who initially began at community colleges were 14.5% less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees within 9 years.)
But a January 2014 Calder working paper by Erin Dunlop Velez of the American Institutes of Research puts an interesting twist on this conventional wisdom. Dunlop Velez crunched a data sample representing all students in the United States who were between 12 and 16 years old in the beginning of 1997, with the majority of the college going sample entering college between 1999 and 2003.
Her first findings confirmed what Long and Kurlaender noticed. “About 70% of four- year college drop-outs have a higher predicted probability of success beginning at a four-year college,” she wrote.
“But for the other 30% of the sample, their predicted probability of bachelor’s degree attainment would have been higher had they started at a two-year college. This is particularly true for first-generation college students, about 40% of which would have been more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree had they begun at a two-year college.”
This poses a conundrum for education policy. You’ve got one giant chunk of students that’s better off starting at a four year college. But another sizable minority that would have been better off with different advice.
Dunlop Velez makes an effort to describe this group that would have been better off starting at a 2-year-college. They tend to be minorities and first-generation college students.
The downside of steering a student to the wrong path may not be terrible. In many cases community college grads outlearn those with a bachelor’s.