by Jonathan M. Turk
Community colleges serve as an entry point to postsecondary education for hundreds of thousands of students seeking a bachelor’s degree each year. One key decision prospective transfer students must make is how long to stay at their community college. Should they stay longer, earn an associate degree first, and then transfer? Or should they transfer sooner, having completed some number of transferable courses but not enough to earn an associate degree? Will earning an associate degree improve their chances of completing a bachelor’s degree?
Analyzing national data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002 and accompanying Postsecondary Education Transcript Study, this research brief—the third in a series of four—examined the impact of earning an associate degree prior to transfer on the probability of earning a bachelor’s degree. The key findings indicate that earning an associate degree prior to transfer neither increased nor decreased the likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree for students in the sample.
Despite this finding, earning an associate degree first may still be a wise investment for transfer students. Because more and more jobs are requiring a postsecondary credential, earning an associate degree prior to transfer may be the best strategy to hedge against the prospect of departing higher education without any degree. In light of the findings of this brief, the author offers three recommendations for policy and practice: (1) Actively promote the economic value of an associate degree to students, (2) Encourage bachelor’s degree attainment through comprehensive transfer and articulation policies that incentivize associate degree completion, and (3) Establish clear policies for reverse transfer and degree reclamation.