Is It Really Cheaper to Start at a Community College? The Consequences of Inefficient Transfer for Community College Students Seeking Bachelor’s Degrees

By Casey Nguyen

In a recent study, researchers from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University discuss the trade-offs of attending a two-year college before transferring to a four-year college. Their research considered institutions’ sticker price (tuition and fees) and cost of attendance (total expenditures), students’ credit accumulation and failed credits and the diversionary effect which measures the probability of completion for students who attend community college.

Among some of the findings:

  • Although students often start at community colleges for economic reasons, the total cost of higher education may be greater if those units do not transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Two-year community colleges may be an inefficient pathway to a bachelor’s degree as community college students are more likely to:
    • Fail courses (on average, community college students have a fail rate of 15%, equivalent to about 9 credits);
    • Earn credits they do not need for their programs;
    • Earn credits beyond the number required for their degrees (on average, associate’s degree completers earn 10 credits more than conventional students, or about 17% more than is required); and
    • Enroll in courses that will not transfer to a four year institution (fewer than 60% of transferring students were able to transfer most of their credits and 15% could not transfer any credits at all).

The study concluded that inefficiency, which is mainly caused by transferring and accumulating non-transferable credits (13-30%), adds to the amount of credits attempted towards a bachelor’s degree.  Having said this, given community colleges’ low cost of attendance, as long as the number, type and cost of inefficient credits remains low, it  likely makes  fiscal sense for students to start at two-year institutions.