Background/Context: As the cost of postsecondary education continues to rise, more students begin their postsecondary careers at a community college with the ultimate goal of upward transfer. However, there is limited evidence regarding how earning an associate degree prior to transfer shape transfer students’ eventual success at baccalaureate institutions. The existing literature on this topic either draws on data from single states or does not address self-selection.
Purpose: In this study, we seek to understand whether transfer students’ performance and attainment at 4-year institutions vary based on whether they achieved an associate degree prior to pursuing a baccalaureate degree. This study attempts to provide clearer evidence by using national data and robust quasi-experimental designs to investigate the effect of pretransfer associate degree attainment on posttransfer success.
Research Design: We drew upon data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/09) and its supplementary Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS:09) to answer our research question. To address self-selection, we employed two complementary quasi-experimental approaches in our study: propensity score matching (PSM) and instrumental variable (IV). The results were compared with baseline analyses using ordinary least squares (OLS) and probit regression.
Findings: In the baseline analyses that did not deal with potential selection, we found that, compared to their counterparts who did not earn an associate degree prior to transfer, transfer students who had an associate degree showed no statistically significant differences in bachelor’s degree attainment, retention, or GPA, but earned significantly fewer credits at 4-year institutions. The results from the PSM are substantively similar to those from the baseline models. Using an IV approach, we found no impact of earning an associate degree on any of the aforementioned educational outcomes at 4-year institutions. Our study suggests that, based on a national dataset, students transferring upward to a 4-year institution from a community college are likely to have similar outcomes regardless of whether they earned an associate degree pretransfer.
Conclusions: The uncovered null effect may not mean that earning an associate degree has no impact within specific state contexts; instead, it may mean that the impact varies across contexts, but aggregates to be null. Given that earning an associate degree at least does not hurt later transfer success, community colleges may wish to encourage pretransfer credential attainment as a way to better capture their success with these students and illustrate their contribution to the growing national effort to increase degree completion.