Persistent Racial Gap in Transfers from Community College to University in the US

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In August 2019, Mary Alice McCarthy and Debra Bragg reported on the racial gap among students transferring from college to university in the US. Only about one in three community college students eventually transfer to four-year institutions, and transfer and graduation rates are “especially low” for African American, Native American, Hispanic, and low-income students—a phenomenon researchers refer to as a “racial transfer gap.”

In 2018, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that, for the fall 2011 cohort of 2.8 million first-time students, 38 percent transferred within their first six years, and less than six percent of students who began at two-year institutions did so after earning a degree at their starting institution.

The National Student Clearinghouse report also found that Black and Hispanic students at community colleges were significantly less likely to transfer to four-year institutions than were their White or Asian counterparts: Whereas White and Asian community college students transferred at rates of 50.4 percent and 49.8 percent, respectively, transfer rates for Black students (33.2 percent) and Hispanic (39.5 percent) were significantly lower.

McCarthy and Bragg describe one solution to these disparities—allowing community colleges to award Bachelor’s degrees. Among 941 public community colleges in the country, only 121 community and technical colleges are currently allowed to offer baccalaureate programs. In 2017, two-third of those graduates came from programs in Florida and Washington state.

Data from Washington show that students graduating from these programs are older than university students, with an average age of thirty-two, and “more racially and economically diverse.” In Florida, three out of four students enrolled in community college Bachelor’s programs are from underserved populations.

Opposition to community college Bachelor’s programs has been driven by four-year public universities, which have lobbied against legislation that would allow community colleges to offer Bachelor’s degrees. The concern is that community college programs would siphon off students who would otherwise enroll in a public university. However, as McCarthy and Bragg write, “many students who get a bachelor’s degree from a community college wouldn’t otherwise have gotten it from a public university; they just wouldn’t have gotten one at all.” Instead, McCarthy and Bragg propose that expanding baccalaureate programs at community colleges serves to address racial and class disparities in college transfers and, ultimately, increase the number of Americans with degrees.

The demand to get higher education is real, with studies repeatedly confirming the economic and social value of Bachelor’s degrees. A 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, since January 2010 (when the US economy first began to add jobs after the Great Recession of 2007-2009), workers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher have taken “almost all the jobs in high-and middle-skill occupations.” From January 2010 to January 2016, workers with a Bachelor’s degree added 8.4 million jobs, while workers with a high school diploma or less have seen almost no recovery, gaining only 80,000 jobs. The report’s conclusions noted that Bachelor’s degree holders now earn 57 percent of all wages, and that workers with a sigh school diploma or less “must earn postsecondary credentials in order to compete effectively in growing high-skill career fields.”

As McCarthy and Bragg wrote in their report for Washington Monthly, “Creating more opportunities for Americans…could be as simple as letting more college students finish where they start.”

Source:  Mary Alice McCarthy and Debra Bragg, “Escaping the Transfer Trap,” Washington Monthly. September/October 2019,

Student Researcher: Linh Erickson (City College of San Francisco)

Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Levinson (City College of San Francisco)