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Earning Associate Degree Before Transferring to 4-Year College Has Advantage

A new study out underscores the value of getting an associate degree, rather than just attending a community college, before transferring to a four-year university. It can increase the likelihood of completing a bachelor's degree, save students money, and improve their earnings compared with that of earlier transfers.

This information comes from a study by Clive Belfield of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The economic benefit of getting an associate degree before going to a four-year school can add up to nearly $50,000 over 20 years. The researchers attribute this to cheaper community college tuition and the fact that many transfer students drop out before getting their bachelor's degree.

Most students don't have access to information that would help them decide the best time to transfer, the study notes. The researchers suggest that community colleges—and the state systems of which they are a part—create stronger incentives for making the completion of an associate degree before transfer a priority for students.

This research is based on an analysis of students who attended the North Carolina Community College System between 2001 and 2010. Some previous studies have concluded that students do better when they start at four-year colleges and that beginning in community colleges diverts students from attaining a bachelor's degree. Yet that finding does not take into account the fact that attending community college is less expensive than a four-year college and that many transfer students do not go on to obtain a bachelor's.

This new CCRC examination finds that while transfer students who go on to earn a bachelor's degree without an associate degree earn slightly more over 20 years than those who complete an associate degree before transferring ($803,000 vs. $764,400), the net-benefit difference is actually $50,000 when considering the higher costs of early transfer and the likelihood of dropping out without earning a bachelor's degree.

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