California Community College Transfer Rates: Policy Implications and a Future Research Agenda

February 2003

The mission of most community college systems in the United States has always included the preparation of students for transfer to universities to complete a bachelor’s degree. In recent years, researchers, policymakers, and administrators of higher education throughout the country have expressed concern about the effectiveness of the community college transfer function.

The transfer role of community colleges is especially critical in California, where two-year colleges account for nearly 75 percent of all postsecondary enrollments and are widely recognized as a crucial gateway to higher education for large numbers of low-income students and students of color. While enrollment in California’s community colleges has increased by almost 30 percent over the past two decades, there has been a much smaller increase in the number of transfers, and transfer as a share of enrollment has actually declined. Of particular concern in California, rates of transfer to four-year institutions for Latino and African-American community college students are lower than for other students.

This reinforces a need to further analyze, beyond the work done in this report, factors that may be playing a role in hindering transfer to universities by these student groups. Might it be, for example, that they disproportionately attend college part-time and work full-time, that they’re more likely to be raising children or that they tend to be older than traditional college populations – all factors associated with lower rates of transfer? Do they face more obstacles in attending universities outside their home communities? Researching what lies behind the trends would be a crucial step in crafting effective solutions (such as, perhaps, making more coursework and on-campus child care available in the evenings). Absent problem-solving answers, the trends pose serious policy implications for the state, especially given the continued rapid growth in the state’s Latino population and the importance of a college degree to success in today’s increasingly knowledge-based workforce.

Studies indicate that higher transfer rates are associated with:

  • Better academic preparation in high school,
  • Younger student populations,
  • Higher socioeconomic status, and
  • A strong focus on academic programs at community colleges.

Purpose and Methods

The purpose of this study is to identify factors that explain observed differences in transfer rates among California’s 108 community colleges. Our goal is to identify the factors that policy-makers need to consider in monitoring the transfer function of community colleges.

This purpose is achieved through a cohort-based study of first-time freshmen in community colleges that uses three statistical models to explain differences in transfer rates across colleges. Because there is not full agreement on the “best” way to measure a community college’s rate of transfer, we employ in our models two different methods of calculating transfer rates and two different time spans over which to observe transfer behavior. The use of multiple models enables us to address and comment on many of the methodological concerns raised in earlier research.

The models can be summarized as follows:

  • Model 1: A broad, “inclusive” transfer rate measured over three years.
  • Model 2: The same “inclusive” transfer rate measured over six years.
  • Model 3: A more narrowly defined transfer rate for those students demonstrating “transfer intent” measured over six years.

All three models use the same set of explanatory variables and employ regression techniques in order to identify how each variable independently influences college transfer rates.


Many of our findings confirm the results of other studies: California community colleges with higher transfer rates tend to have younger student populations, students with higher socioeconomic status and better academic preparation, and a greater focus on academic programs. One of the most interesting results of our analysis is the disparity we find in transfer rates across California community colleges based upon the percentage of students who are Asian-American, African-American, or Latino. This racial/ethnic disparity arises even after controlling for differences in socioeconomic status and academic preparation.

We summarize here only the findings on race/ethnicity from Model 3, because we believe that the transfer rate of students with an attendance pattern indicative of a transfer goal is the more appropriate rate from which to derive policy. The results of Model 3 indicate that community colleges with higher percentages of either Latino or African-American students have lower six-year transfer rates (after controlling for other factors), while colleges that have a larger percentage of Asian-American students have higher transfer rates.

These findings from Model 3, and similar findings discussed in the report from Models 1 and 2, offer compelling evidence of a racial/ethnic disparity in rates of transfer from California’s community colleges. Factors other than socioeconomic status or academic preparation apparently account for transfer patterns among students of color, since our statistical method of analysis allowed us to control for these factors. We believe that the lower rate of transfer exhibited by Latinos and African-Americans in California, and the higher rate of transfer of Asian Americans, deserves further study and the attention of policy-makers. Further analysis may reveal a range of policy solutions that could increase the transfer success of students currently under-represented at California’s four-year universities.

Other statistical findings of note include:

  • California community colleges with a higher share of female students tend to have lower transfer rates,
  • California community colleges in urban areas tend to have higher transfer rates, and
  • California community colleges that have higher shares of graduates getting two-year degrees in general studies or liberal arts/sciences tend to have higher transfer rates.

A Proposed Agenda

Our findings raise interesting questions for California’s policy-makers and administrators of higher education regarding the ability of community colleges to meet the educational goals of students as currently intended under the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education. There is a need for additional research on transfer rates to answer the following questions:

  • What accounts for the lower transfer rates of California community colleges with higher concentrations of African-American and Latino students? What policy interventions would be appropriate to reduce racial/ethnic disparities in transfer?
  • Are there unique barriers to transfer for female students, or are female students more affected by the barriers to persistence, transfer and graduation than are male students?
  • Given the increasing importance of community colleges in preparing and retraining older students for the workplace, what can be done to reduce the disparity in transfer rate between younger and older students?
  • What policies and programs do colleges with high transfer rates (after accounting for student and community characteristics) use to achieve these outcomes and how can that information best be shared with other community colleges?
  • Are there conflicts among the various missions of California’s community colleges that affect transfer rates? Can we reasonably expect all community colleges to be equally successful at each of the various missions?

Such questions are best answered with a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis; a purely statistical study like ours necessarily has data limitations. But we hope that our results, and the accumulation of evidence from similar studies, can help to set the agenda for follow-up case studies and qualitative analyses that can probe more deeply some of the factors that appear to enhance or impede the transfer function. Effective transfer programs are essential to maintaining California’s commitment to access and educational equity, and to producing the educated workforce essential to the state’s economic future.

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