Completion Outcomes for Community College Transfers to Public Universities in Texas

If you have been following recent higher education-related news and headlines, you are likely aware that the trends in student transfers are alarming, especially in terms of community college to university transfers. Within Texas, the number of first-time transfer students enrolling at public universities has fallen from almost 52,000 in fall 2014 to below 50,500 in fall 2020. In fall 2014, first-time transfer students comprised almost 40% of new incoming students. In fall 2020, that percentage of representation fell to 36.5%. From a peak of first-time transfers of 55,060 in 2017, Texas public universities experienced a drop of 8.3-percent by fall 2020. 

While concerns certainly exist on the front-end of the transfer pipeline, there is also great interest in how effectively and efficiently public universities in Texas are getting transfer students to the finish line in terms of earning a bachelor’s degree within a timely manner. In response to a legislative mandate, a recent report published by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) addressed gaps in graduation outcomes for transfer students when comparing them with native students. The following blog post will explore the data presented in the THECB report, as well as provide additional data that might explain initial findings in the outcomes data.

Comparing graduation outcomes for transfer students and native students

The THECB’s report primarily presented data related to improving outcomes for transfer students. In order to contextualize these outcomes, the THECB created cohorts for native students (those who were first-time-in-college enrollees at a particular institution) and transfer students. The cohort was based on those students who achieved junior classification status in fall 2016. These cohorts were tracked through 2020 to determine metrics for each cohort, including four-year graduation rates, time-to-degree in years, and student credit hours (SCH) attempted. 

By way of clarification…

  • Recent legislative actions have shifted the landscape of public higher education in Texas, as the Texas Legislature approved the creation of the Texas Woman’s University System and the move of Midwestern State University into the Texas Tech University System. These changes are reflected in the System-level analyses below.
  • Each visualization shows the metric broken out by public university system, along with the statewide averages for the junior cohorts indicated by the vertical lines.
  • The left-hand side of the visualization shows native students in blue and transfer students in orange.
  • The right-hand side of the visualization shows the gap between transfer students and native students within each university system. Native students are considered the reference group, so the gray bars on the right-hand side show how far below/above the transfer cohort is from the native student cohort on each metric. 
  • The three visualizations below address each of the metrics. Each visualization can be accessed by clicking on the tab label at the top of the visualizations. 

Graduation Rate

  • As a state “system” of public universities, 86-percent of native students in the junior cohort completed a bachelor’s degree within 4 years. Transfer students in the junior cohort had a four-year graduation rate of 67 percent, which is an achievement gap of 19 percentage points.
  • As can be seen from the data on the left-hand side, the Texas A&M University System’s 11 universities collectively showed the highest average graduation rate for native students at 89 percent.
  • The Texas Tech University System had the highest graduation rate of 75.5 percent for transfer students in the junior cohort.
  • The University of Houston System had the largest gap between native and transfer students in the junior cohort at over 21 percentage points.

Time-to-Degree in Years

  • On average, there is a 2.2-year difference in graduation for transfer students when compared with native students in the THECB’s junior cohort analysis, as native students finish in 5.3 years, while transfer students graduate in 7.5 years. 
  • Native students in the University of North Texas System demonstrated the best time-to-degree average in the junior cohort at 5.2 years.
  • The TTU System showed the best time-to-degree average for transfers in the junior cohort with 6.9 years and had the smallest difference between native and transfer students of 1.49 years. 

Semester Credit Hours (SCH) Attempted by Graduates

  • The statewide average difference in SCH attempted by graduates was 7.2 SCH, which essentially equates to just over two additional courses for transfer students in the junior cohort when compared with native students. 
  • Native students at the University of Texas System had the lowest SCH attempted with 128.8 hours on average, but the gap (9.8 SCH) between transfer students and native students was the highest among public university systems in Texas.
  • Transfer students who graduated from schools in UNT System had the least average SCH attempted with 134.2 hours, while graduates in the TTU System had the most SCH attempted at 141.4.
  • The smallest gap for systems with more than one institution was at the A&M System, with a 4.1-SCH difference between transfer and native students in the junior cohort.

So What?

One of the takeaways from the combination of metrics included in the THECB report is the seemingly misaligned findings of time-to-degree and SCH attempted. As a state, transfer students in the junior cohort attempt approximately 2 more courses (7.2 SCH) in earning their undergraduate degree when compared to native students. However, on average, it takes transfer students more than 2 additional years of study to complete their degrees than their native student counterparts. Why is that?

One of the possible indicators of why this discrepancy exists between time-to-degree and SCH can be seen in the volume of courses taken each semester. Based on data pulled from the THECB’s Accountability System Interactive Portal, the data below show that more than 77% of degree-seeking students at public community colleges in Texas enroll as part-time students (taking fewer than 12 hours in the fall semester), while less than 22% of degree-seeking undergraduate students at Texas public universities are enrolled as part-time students. While admittedly a multifaceted issue, the vast disparity in enrollment intensity between community college transfer students and native university students may provide an initial explanation as to why the average SCH attempted is relatively close between cohorts, but the time-to-degree in years is so much higher when comparing native and transfer students in the THECB junior cohort analysis. 

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