Should Community College Students Earn an Associate Degree Before Transferring to a Four-Year Institution?
Community colleges are the postsecondary entry point for thousands of students each year in the United States. Over 80 percent of these students indicate a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher (Horn & Skomsvold, 2011). However, according to studies by the National Student Clearinghouse, only about 15 percent of all students who start at two-year public colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years (Shapiro et al., 2012). Although the expected pathway for community college students seeking a bachelor’s degree includes earning an associate degree, little is known about the impact of earning an associate degree on bachelor’s degree completion. This paper thus seeks to answer the following question: Are community college students who earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year college more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree?
Using data on students in one state who entered community college and then transferred, we find large, positive apparent impacts of earning the transfer-oriented (e.g., Associate in Arts) associate degree on the probability of earning a bachelor’s degree within four, five, and six years. However, we do not find any apparent impact associated with earning one of the workforce-oriented (e.g., Associate in Applied Science) degrees that are awarded by programs typically designed for direct labor market entry. This is an important distinction, as all associate degrees are not equal in their potential impacts on future baccalaureate completion.
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