2-Year Students Have Long Had 4-Year Dreams

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

September 23, 2013

Last month the National Student Clearinghouse released a report showing that more than 60 percent of community-college students who transferred to four-year universities ultimately earned bachelor's degrees within six years after transfer. I was pleased to hear these findings but not surprised. New, first-time community-college students have always been ambitious.

The baccalaureate aspirations and long-term plans of these students should be refreshing to higher-education leaders because they provide a corrective to the persistent public rhetoric insisting that today's students are focusing on developing skills rather than gaining an education. Still, I am disenchanted with those people who so casually dismiss these intentions as unreliable, even profligate, in light of the availability of jobs that require short-term certificates or associate degrees. My argument is not with the proliferation of high-quality pre-baccalaureate credentials; such training is essential for our economy. Rather, it is with the presumption that these students are uninterested in an education every bit as intense as that of undergraduates who enroll initially in four-year institutions.

Earning a four-year degree is the pre-eminent educational goal for most incoming community-college students. A 2009 survey by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that more than 80 percent of all new, first-time community-college students sought bachelor's degrees. The desire was especially strong among students from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education, such as Latinos (85 percent), African-Americans (83 percent), and those in the lowest income quartile (84 percent).

The desire to earn a four-year degree has a long history. Between 1966 and 1999, when the University of California at Los Angeles's Cooperative Institutional Research Program surveyed the educational aspirations of junior-college, and then community-college, students separately from those entering four-year institutions, the proportion of two-year-college students whose education goal was a bachelor's degree (or higher) never dropped below 70 percent. Steven G. Brint and Jerome Karabel, in their classic book, The Diverted Dream (1989), quote survey results from the 1920s through the 1950s, all of which reported the intentions of two-year college students as largely directed toward a bachelor's degree.

Despite their desire to earn a baccalaureate, however, few achieve that goal. Data indicate that only about one-quarter to one-third of students who wish to transfer actually succeed, despite the fact that—as the clearinghouse data reflect—their chances of earning a four-year degree after transfer are good.

Perversely, the low number of actual transfers is used to justify the recalibration of student intentions toward pre-baccalaureate credentials. But higher-education observers like Richard Kahlenberg, writing in The Chronicle, argue the opposite: "Some look at these numbers and suggest community colleges should downplay the idea of transfer, but it makes more sense to improve and strengthen transfer paths."

Few people seem concerned about the mismatch between what community-college students intend to do and what they actually achieve. A recently published monograph chastises community-college leaders by noting that while community-college "students will readily identify transfer and long-term academic goals, their ultimate goal is on employment. ... Unfortunately this simple fact is overlooked by most community colleges." Even if we stipulate in the absence of evidence that students are concerned only with jobs, it is unclear how their focus on "transfer and academic goals" undermines that future.

It seems that the wreckage of the recent recession has left us wondering whether the investment in a college degree will continue to signal something other than a labor-market payoff, as reflected in a recent essay, "The Diploma's Vanishing Value," in The Wall Street Journal, by Jeffrey J. Selingo, The Chronicle's editor at large.

In response, there is insistence that the nation fill a growing number of jobs requiring pre-baccalaureate skills. This is accompanied by data showing that individuals earning associate degrees in certain fields will earn more initially than those who obtain baccalaureate degrees.

Embedded in this rhetorical handwringing is a nod to the cost-effectiveness of junior and community colleges, as if those institutions, around for a century, had only recently matured into something more than colleges that other people's kids attended.

Yet, despite the praise of politicians for the vocational aspects of a community-college credential, they have been unable or unwilling to provide the money to improve completion rates. A recent report from the Century Foundation, Bridging the Higher Education Divide, notes that between 1999 and 2009, per-student support at private research institutions went up $14,000, while public community colleges benefited from a per-student increase of just $1.

Of course, the pressure on college students to train for jobs has been around for a long time. Critics have complained since Harvard was founded that college learning yielded very little in the way of marketable skills. For a time in the late 20th century, however, Big Science, the cold war, and billowing middle-class incomes made the baccalaureate degree the accepted passport to Mad Men martinis and split-level suburban homes—assuming, of course, that you were not poor, a member of an ethnic minority group, or a person with a disability. Those folks went to community colleges to train for jobs, right?

Then, as now, we comforted ourselves with the notion that such students, assuming they were exceptionally qualified, could transfer to four-year institutions, perhaps even to elite universities. In reality, however, very few were admitted there. Researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona estimate the number of two-year transfer students attending any one of the country's 179 most elite private and public campuses at fewer than 200, on average.

In a nation galvanized around college completion, we label tragic those students attending four-year institutions, even nonselective ones, who fail to earn four-year degrees. We seem satisfied, however, with community-college students—working toward an identical goal—who similarly fail.

An enduring contribution of America's community colleges will continue to be the breadth of credentials they offer students of all ages, including occupational certificates, industry-certified training programs, and associate degrees. But let's not forget that many new, first-time community-college students want something more.

They have always wanted more.

Stephen J. Handel is associate vice president for undergraduate admission in the University of California system. He wrote this essay when he was executive director of the National Office of Community College Initiatives at the College Board. The opinions expressed are his own.