Nationwide, the vast majority of community college students want to transfer to a four-year university for a bachelor’s degree. But many struggle to understand the process, and when they run into barriers, they’re more likely to waste money on classes they don’t need or drop out.

Students who aim to transfer from the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC], though, accomplish that goal more often than the average transfer student. About 45% of those CCAC students enroll at a four-year university by the next academic year, according to data from the last five academic years that PublicSource obtained through a Right-to-Know request. 

That’s better than the national average: About 31% of community college students who enroll with the intent to transfer do so within five years. 

And at a few local universities, most students from CCAC graduate after they get in the door. 

At the University of Pittsburgh, nearly 80% of CCAC transfer students who enrolled in fall 2018 graduated within four years. At Chatham University, about 70% of the 175 CCAC students who’ve transferred since 2014 have graduated. Other Pittsburgh universities did not provide data to PublicSource. 

Nationally, about half of students who transfer to public universities graduate within six years of enrolling at community college, and about 34% of those who transfer to private nonprofit universities do. It’s unclear how long the students at Pitt and Chatham were enrolled at CCAC.

When students transfer and graduate, they gain access to the increased earnings that bachelor’s degrees often provide, all while graduating with less debt. Those benefits can ripple through Pittsburgh: Nearly all CCAC graduates stay in the region, and when residents earn more money, they can buy more expensive homes, spend more at local businesses and potentially pay more in taxes.

The transfer process, if effective, can also support equity. Students of color particularly stand to benefit, as they fall behind their white peers in bachelor’s degree attainment. Black students made up 15% of CCAC’s student body in fall 2022, and Hispanic and Latino students made up about 4%. 

CCAC, however, has lost about 35% of its student body since the pandemic. If would-be students are foregoing a college education entirely, there are fewer Pittsburghers accessing this path to economic mobility and, subsequently, pouring money back into the community upon graduation.

In an interview, President Quintin Bullock said that transferring from CCAC is a “great first step” for students because of the college’s supportive services, smaller class sizes and high-quality instruction, as well as the affordability of the process. Those supports are especially helpful to the many first-generation students the college serves, he said.

“It motivates them even more to be able to demonstrate to their peers, or their other family members that perhaps did not come to college, that, ‘Look, I can do this,’” Bullock said.

While transfer students fare relatively well at CCAC, the college struggles in other areas of student success. At least half of all students drop out year-over-year and less than a quarter graduate within six years, mirroring outcomes confronting community colleges across the country. 

How does the process work, and where does it fall short?

recent survey of community college students with transfer goals found that, of about 50,000 respondents, half never sought or received advising on the process. Community colleges typically have fewer resources to put toward advising, which contributes to the inadequate support many transfer students receive. 

Community colleges that have improved their transfer processes are providing early and continued guidance to students, reducing their advisers’ caseloads, and connecting students to four-year universities, said John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

CCAC has made strides in that area. Incoming students take a course that requires them to form an academic plan, and students who indicate they want to transfer must meet with a counselor who specializes in the process before their first semester is over. The college encourages undecided students to meet with a transfer counselor regardless. 

“I think we’ve come a long way in working proactively with our students,” said Stephen Wells, CCAC’s interim chief academic officer.

Some students nationwide struggle with “credit loss,” when credits from their community college don’t count toward their bachelor’s degree. That forces some to prolong their studies and pay more in academic expenses – and can lead them to drop out. The loss can be caused by inadequate advising from community colleges or selectivity from four-year universities, according to The Hechinger Report

It’s unclear how many CCAC students lose credits when they transfer to four-year universities. Bullock said that cases of credit loss “would be attributed to students not working closely with their adviser.” 

He noted that the college has agreements with 29 colleges and universities in the U.S. – and 8 of the 10 other accredited institutions in Allegheny County – that aim to ensure students who graduate from certain degree programs at CCAC can transfer seamlessly. 

At Pitt, faculty and academic advisers also decide whether courses are transferable by comparing their syllabi. 

Alexandra Logue, a former provost of the City University of New York [CUNY] system who wrote a book on the historic pitfalls of transferring within the system, noted that colleges often rely on faculty judgment in the transfer process. Faculty egos can discourage coordination, she said.

“Faculty are encouraged to develop curriculum the way they think is best for students,” Logue said. “If yours is the best, somebody else’s isn’t as good. And if that’s the case, how can you be giving a degree to someone who hasn’t taken your courses?”

When the transfer process, generally, works

About six years ago, Tyler Bobik posted a guide on Reddit about “the art of transferring from CCAC” to Pitt. He outlined six steps in his post, each written in all-caps and bold text. The first? “YOU’RE THERE TO TRANSFER NOT GRADUATE.” 

That’s where he believes some students run into obstacles. Instead of taking CCAC courses that align with a four-year university’s degree program, they pursue an associate’s degree at the college and assume their credits will count. 

Bobik, 28, knew early on that he wanted to transfer. With that as his goal, he met with representatives from four-year universities when they visited CCAC, and a transfer counselor gave him a guide to the courses that matched those he needed at Pitt. 

In all, 58 of his 60 credits from CCAC transferred when he enrolled at Pitt in 2016. He graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in spring 2019. He now works at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center.

“It wasn’t super frustrating,” he said of the transfer process. Still, transferring successfully requires students to be on top of requirements — and some students start planning for the process too late, he said. He knew some students who enrolled at CCAC and “weren’t really sure what they wanted to do.”

That was true for Misha Kharkovski, 24. He decided to study computer science at Pitt after earning his associate’s degree in graphic communications, and he stayed at CCAC for several extra semesters, until spring 2021, to make a dent in his bachelor’s degree requirements. He ended up accumulating more credits at CCAC than he could transfer to Pitt.

Kharkovski found CCAC to be helpful throughout the transfer process. He didn’t terribly mind paying for classes that didn’t support his new career path. “It’s just more knowledge,” he said.

For others, though, the burden of lost credits can throw off their plans, according to the Community College Research Center.  

What role do four-year universities play?

Community colleges aren’t solely responsible for ensuring the success of transfer students. Four-year universities should invest in pre-transfer advising and outreach and work with community colleges to ensure their courses align, said Fink of the Community College Research Center. 

Pitt, as well as Chatham, Carlow and La Roche universities, provided responses to PublicSource about the transfer process and their partnerships with CCAC. Among measures taken at those universities: Admissions teams collaborate frequently with CCAC’s transfer counselors, recruiters visit the community college’s campuses, and staff are able to evaluate CCAC students’ credits before enrolling. 

In 2021, Pitt launched an online transfer tool that provides real-time updates on whether community college courses have a match. The university also operates a Transfer Welcome Center, where prospective students can schedule in-person meetings with counselors.

Both Bullock and Wells spoke positively of the college’s partnerships with local four-year universities. The universities that have agreements with CCAC tend to reach out when they implement significant curricular changes, Wells said, citing a meeting he had that day with Pitt. 

Logue, of the CUNY system, said four-year universities should also ensure that transfer students from community colleges receive sufficient financial support. A 2021 survey of more than 80,000 community college students nationwide found that nearly 30% of respondents were food insecure and 14% were housing insecure. 

Some local universities have implemented such efforts. 

La Roche University’s “Bridge to Your Bachelor’s” program allows students to pay their community college’s tuition rate for their first semester at the university.

Carlow increased its maximum annual scholarship award for transfer students to $15,000 for the upcoming academic year. Carlow has offered a $2,000-per-year award to full-time students transferring from community colleges with associates degrees.

Chatham offers transfer students the same merit-based scholarships that first-year undergraduates are eligible for. 

“We do not want them to miss out or not have access to the same opportunities as students who might just be choosing us a little bit earlier on in the process,” said Brian Dwyer, director of undergraduate admission and recruitment at Chatham. 

Bullock acknowledged the stakes.

“It’s important for the community college to contribute to preparing and educating a skilled workforce,” he said. “We want to ensure that we are contributing every way possible.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Lucas Dufalla. 

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.