Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

Perspective | Helping community college students obtain bachelor’s degrees

Voiced by Amazon Polly

For many adults, community colleges offer workforce-ready pathways that can lead to rewarding careers and comfortable lifestyles. North Carolina is fortunate to have 58 outstanding community colleges, several of which have been named the best in the nation. 

Although an associate degree or professional certificate from a community college can make one highly qualified in several career fields, studies show that nearly 80% of community college students intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, that ambition falls well short for many, as a recent study from Columbia University shows that only 16% of community college students continue on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Clearly, there is a disconnect between intention and completion. 

The study followed a cohort of students who started community college in the fall of 2015 and tracked them for six years. Among the findings were that about one-third of community college students nationwide transferred to a four-year institution, and 48% of those transfers earned a bachelor’s degree. The results are not encouraging for those who dropped out of community college or who transferred before earning an associate degree. 

Results for North Carolina community college students closely mirror national results. The study provides a dashboard that revealed these statistics:

  • 15% of N.C. student cohorts completed a bachelor’s in six years (vs. 16% nationally)
  • 31% of N.C. students transferred to a four-year institution (vs. 33%)
  • 41% of N.C. students with a certificate or associate degree transferred (vs. 44%)
  • 49% of N.C. students who transferred completed their bachelor’s in six years (vs. 48%)
  • Only 14% of Hispanic and 9% of Black community college students in N.C. completed a bachelor’s in six years (vs. 13% and 9%)

The study also identified a need for community college leaders, four-year-institution leaders, and state policymakers to develop strategies for improving transfer practices, ultimately contributing to improved bachelor’s degree attainment rates. Recommendations include:

  • promoting certificate or associate degree completion prior to transferring to a four-year school,
  • expanding dual-enrollment programs (particularly for low-income, Black, Hispanic and other underrepresented groups),
  • and working to build clear transfer pathways and partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. 

In North Carolina, we should support and expand the NC Reconnect program. This program from The John M. Belk Endowment — in partnership with myFutureNC, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership, and the North Carolina Community College System — seeks to help former students successfully navigate the complexities of re-enrollment and re-entry, while developing a plan to complete a degree or credential. After launching with five pilot schools in 2021, NC Reconnect currently includes 20 community college partners statewide. 

In 2023, more than 1.1 million North Carolinians had some college credit but no degree. The most common reason college students at all levels drop out is finances, often caused by unexpected life events or changes in income that necessitate a change in priorities. Other barriers include the number of transfer credits that four-year institutions will accept from community colleges. In those cases, transfer students must retake (and pay for) classes they already completed. 

While much has been written about the rising cost of postsecondary tuition, data from the Federal Reserve show that academic degrees are still worth it. In 2023, recent college graduates aged 22-27 working full-time earned $24,000 more per year than their contemporaries with only a high school diploma. College graduates are also more likely to have benefits like health insurance, sick leave, and the ability to work remotely.

We can, and must, improve support and pathways for the nearly 80% of community college students who wish to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree and enhance their career prospects and lifetime earnings potential. I encourage leaders at all community colleges and four-year institutions to collaborate on solutions that promote completion of associate degrees, improve transfer pathways, create more dual-enrollment opportunities, and re-engage adult learners who have dropped out. Working together, we can improve bachelor’s degree completion rates for transfer students statewide.

Ben Coulter

Ben Coulter, Ed.D., is southeast regional director for Western Governors University, an accredited nonprofit online university, and serves as chancellor of WGU North Carolina.