Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · September 2020

Increasing Community College Transfers: Progress and Barriers

Hans Johnson and Marisol Cuellar Mejia

This research was supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the College Futures Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.


California enrolls a much larger share of students in community college than other states; ensuring more of these students transfer to four-year institutions can strengthen the economic security of California workers. This transfer role is especially important for low-income students, first-generation college students, and students from underrepresented groups, all of whom are more likely to start their higher education journey in a community college. As Californians face financial disruptions from the COVID-19 crisis, more students may choose a transfer path through community colleges to defray the costs of higher education. Transfers open the door to bachelor’s degrees for a more diverse population of students and ensure higher education still serves as a ladder for economic mobility.

The community college system is directing attention and resources at improving student pathways through community college and into four-year colleges. This study examines trends in transfer, describes current reforms, and sheds light on what can be expected if recent reforms prove successful.

Specifically, we find:

  • A large gap exists between the number of students who hope to transfer and those who do: 19 percent of students with a stated transfer goal do so within four years; 28 percent do so within six years.
  • Transfer rates are higher among students who successfully complete 12 units and take any English or math course within their first three years: 26 percent transfer within four years and 39 percent within six.
  • Many students transfer without completing a full lower-division course load. Slightly over half of students who transfer earn enough transferable units that would grant them junior status.
  • Equity gaps are a big concern. While Latino students represent 51 percent of students who declare a degree/transfer goal, they represent 35 percent of those who transfer within four years; African American students represent 7 and 5 percent, respectively.
  • Transfer rates are higher for students who successfully complete gateway transfer-level math (51 percent within four years) or accumulate 30 or more transferable units (73 percent) in their first year, and for those who earn an Associate Degree for Transfer (50 percent).
  • Recent reforms have made it possible for more students to successfully complete gateway math and English courses in their first year.

Reforms that eliminate pre-requisite remediation courses-along with other reforms-can help more community college students make tangible progress along the transfer path, potentially raising the number of transfer-eligible students by more than 50 percent. To further improve the transfer pathway, the California Community Colleges (CCC) and four-year institutions must build systemwide agreements and help all transfer-eligible students make the transition. The Associate Degree to Transfer (ADT) and Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) are steps in the right direction, but they are piecemeal and far from universal.

Governor Newsom and the legislature reached a budget deal in June that avoids immediate cuts to K-12 education and the community college system. However, the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) might face significant revenue losses unless additional federal or state support materializes. This could impact the ability of these institutions to enroll an increasing number of transfer students. To advance the economic well-being of all Californians, the state and higher education institutions must work together to ensure that more students can attain a bachelor’s degree-and all the benefits that it brings-if they choose the transfer path.


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