Many Texas community college students who transfer don’t finish their degrees, study says

The open lab area at San Jacinto College's Central Campus in Pasadena on August 25, 2014.
The open lab area at San Jacinto College's Central Campus in Pasadena on August 25, 2014. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Most Texas community college students who transfer to a four-year university don’t graduate, according to a report on college transfers released Wednesday.

The study from the Community College Research Center and Aspen Institute found that only 45% of students in Texas who go on to a four-year college get a bachelor's degree within six years. Black and adult students struggle even more after they transfer out of a community college, with just 33% and 37% completing their bachelor’s degree, respectively.

Community colleges have long pitched themselves as the most affordable place to start studying for a bachelor’s degree. But Wednesday’s report, the first to break down state transfer outcomes by race, socioeconomic status and age, suggests transfer students need more support to complete their degrees.

“No wonder there is this distrust in higher education when transfer students who enter these kinds of institutions can't realize their goals,” said Tania LaViolet with the Aspen Institute.

The report also found low-income and adult learners are less likely to transfer to a four-year university from a community college, compared to their classmates.

Texas legislators changed how they finance community colleges last year to incentivize transfers. Community colleges now get more money when their students earn at least 15 semester credit hours before enrolling in a four-year university. In the 2024-25 school year, the first year under the new funding model, Texas community colleges earned nearly $327 million for funneling their students into four-year colleges.

That doesn’t guarantee success for a student once they enroll at a four-year university. For one, classes they take at their community college often don’t end up counting toward their bachelor’s degree. And those who do eventually graduate are not graduating fast enough, which delays their entry into the workforce and can mean the amount of money they pay for college continues to accrue, LaViolet said.

Texas public universities say they are struggling to meet the needs of transfer students partly because of gaps in staffing and funding, according to survey results in a 2023 Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board report.

To save students from spending time and money on unnecessary credits, Texas encouraged universities to be more transparent about what it takes to get a degree. Senate Bill 25 mandated universities share a recommended course sequence for every major, so students can use them as a guide to select courses at community colleges. It also required universities to report any non-transferrable credits. But many of the degree plans that universities shared to comply with SB 25 were not clear enough, said Lauren Schudde, a professor in higher education policy at the University of Texas-Austin.

“I've looked at some of the different transfer plans that students have to navigate. It's hard for me to figure out what courses exactly they're supposed to take,” Schudde said.

To build on SB 25, THECB has since started to identify "field of study" courses by major that would be guaranteed to transfer to any public university in the state. The goal is to ensure up to 60 credit hours — the total number of credits that earns students an associate's degree in Texas — can apply to university degree programs, THECB Commissioner Harrison Keller said in a statement.

Participation in dual enrollment — an effort Texas community colleges have invested in — are tied to better transfer outcomes, researchers at the Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center said.

They also recommended community colleges should advise their students to get an associate’s degree first. Those who transfer out with an associate’s degree have much higher rates of bachelor’s degree completion within six years. In Texas, students who intend to transfer can automatically earn an associate's degree if they complete the Texas core curriculum and the "field of study" courses in their major.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

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