Background/Context: A longstanding debate continues concerning whether community colleges democratize education by expanding enrollment or divert students from attaining a bachelor’s degree. The extant evidence is contradictory, but recent findings suggest that community colleges are serving to democratize education without a sizeable diversion effect preventing students from ultimately earning the bachelor’s degree. The diversion effect appears to be much smaller than previously stated.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The main objective of this study is to compare the effect of being a successful community college “transfer” student instead of a “rising junior” in a 4-year college on bachelor’s degree attainment (250 transfers and 790 rising juniors). This study examines the effect of socioeconomic status (SES) and institutional selectivity on the bachelor’s degree completion of transfer students and rising 4-year college juniors.
Data Collection and Analysis: We analyze the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88/2000) high school senior class of 1992 to compare the degree completion outcomes of two samples—transfer and rising junior students—with equivalent degree aspirations. Logistic regression is used to estimate the differences in attainment. Interactions are included to examine the effect of SES and institutional selectivity. To address the problem of selection of students into institutions, we control for proxy variables for students’ motivation. In addition, a Heckman two-stage regression model is estimated using the average state tuition in the state where the student finished high school as the instrumental variable. Finally, to adjust for unobserved institutional characteristics related to the state where the institution is located, a model that includes a state-level dummy variable indicating those that have strong transfer and articulation systems is estimated to more fully control for state characteristics.
Findings/Results: Three main findings emerge from this inquiry. First, the negative effect of being a transfer as opposed to a rising junior diminishes substantially after controlling for differences in SES. The negative effect “disappears” in the sense of not being statistically significant, after corrections for self-selection bias and the addition of variables controlling for transfer policies in the state where the student attended college. Second, and consistent with prior research, degree completion rates increase with selectivity of the 4-year institution attended. Third, the results show that when we allow the effects of community college attendance to vary by SES by introducing an interaction term, there are no statistically significant differences between the completion rates of low-SES transfer and low-SES rising junior students.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Our main conclusion is that previous estimates have overstated the diversion effect. Alongside other recent contributions to the democratization-versus-diversion-effect debate, this study provides an additional piece of evidence demonstrating that the diversion effect is much smaller than was previously estimated. Community college practitioners should feel confident in counseling traditional-age students who want to earn the bachelor’s degree to transfer, because the evidence shows that they are as likely to succeed as their 4-year college counterparts.