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It's Not Either Associate or Bachelor's Degree; for Many Students, It's Both

For a significant number of students, a community college is a step along the academic path, but not a stopping place.

More than 40 percent of graduates with an associate degree—and 60 percent of those who earn one by age 20—go on to earn a bachelor's degree, finds a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Jason DeWitt, research manager for the center and author of the study, based it on an analysis of more than 488,000 students who earned their first postsecondary degree—either an associate degree or certificate—in 2008-09. Of those who did go on to higher degrees, two out of three did so within three years of earning their associate credential, as the chart below shows. 

Graduate time.JPG

"That [timeframe] might seem low to some people, but these are people we know were successful getting their two-year degree and successful getting their four-year degree," DeWitt said. "This is the optimal group here."

Progression from two-year to four year programs will be vital to boosting the nation's overall educational attainment, as higher proportions of minority students head to two-year programs after high school.

Certificate Field Diverse

For those starting with a certificate program, about one in four eventually completed a four-year degree, too, but it is more difficult to understand this group, DeWitt said, as there are a broader array of credit-bearing, transferable education certificates, industry and professional licensures and certifications, and so-called "badges" that all fall under the certificate moniker. "There's this whole sort of stew out there that is becoming much more important, and there just has to be some consensus now on how to standardize what those credentials are," DeWitt said.

In a letter to Education Week unrelated to the study, Marty Brown of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in Olympia, Wash., said certificates used as "stackable credentials" can provide a more flexible pathway for students, in which "each level of skills serves as a foundation for the next level."

The center is considering a more in-depth analysis to identify the majors and lines of study that tend to lead from a certificate to an associate degree or an associate to a bachelor's degree. While some two-year programs are generally intended to be final, like "applied science in welding," DeWitt said many students are able to transfer some or all of their credit from a two-year degree to a four-year program, and 70 percent of those who start a bachelor's degree with their associate degree in hand will graduate within four years.

Chart: Most students who earned a bachelor's degree after an associate degree did so within three years. Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.


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