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Clearinghouse Data Leave More Questions than Answers, and We Need Answers

Published:  August 14, 2013
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Twenty-nine percent of first-time community college students transferred to a four-year college within six years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse. About 8 in 10 of those transfer students completed a bachelor’s degree or were still enrolled in the four-year school after six years. These are just a few of the interesting and important findings of the report, many of which were previously unknown.

The report, which looked at students who enrolled at a four-year institution for the first time in the 2005-06 academic year and had previously been enrolled in a two-year college, found that 72.5 percent of those students transferred to public colleges, while 19.7 percent enrolled at private nonprofit institutions, and 7.8 percent enrolled at private for-profit schools. The choice of the type of institution to which a student transferred seemed to make a difference in his success. Nearly 65 percent of students who transferred to public four-year schools graduated within six years of transferring, and about 60 percent of students who transferred to private nonprofit schools did. Meanwhile, only about 35 percent of transfer students at private for-profit schools graduated within six years.

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At all three types of institutions, students who enrolled full-time graduated at higher rates than students who were enrolled either part-time or who mixed part-time and full-time enrollment while in school.

● At public institutions, 84 percent of full-time students graduated within six years of transferring, while only one in four part-time students did;
● At private nonprofit schools, 79 percent of full-time students graduated within six years, while 31 percent of part-time students did;
● At private for-profit schools, the results weren’t quite as good for the full-time students. Only 57.7 percent of full-time students graduated within six years, while 18.1 percent of part-time students did.

Perhaps most surprising are the aggregate results the Clearinghouse reports. Students who began at two-year colleges and transferred to four-year schools graduated at a higher rate (71.1 percent) than students who attended four-year institutions throughout their academic careers (65.0 percent). But don’t be misled. That number excludes the many community college students who never transfer. Research suggests only about 29 percent of two-year college students transferred to a four-year school, when about half had once stated an intention to transfer – and the Clearinghouse report doesn’t specify its own figures for this category.

The Clearinghouse report offers unique and important insights in answering questions about higher education, like the one addressed in this report: What happens to students who transfer from community colleges? That’s because no one – not even the U.S. Department of Education – has data on higher education as granular as the Clearinghouse data.

The National Student Clearinghouse, originally the National Student Loan Clearinghouse, was developed twenty years ago to help schools track borrowers and that is now used to help schools comply with federal reporting requirements. Schools voluntarily provide the Clearinghouse with extensive student-level data.

But because of a ban passed by Congress in 2008, the Department may not gather student-level data or offer a sort of public Clearinghouse – instead, it only maintains the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which offers a profoundly limited look at aggregate, institution-level data. Because of this limitation, IPEDS is unable to answer some of the most simple and fundamental questions, like what happens to community college students who transfer.

It’s an important question, given that IPEDS shows a graduation rate of only 17.9 percent at two-year schools. That’s because the IPEDS definition doesn’t consider transfers in the graduation rates, despite the fact that community colleges consider transferring students to four-year degree programs one of their primary missions. Without student-level data, there’s no way to give community colleges much-deserved credit for transferring those students -- many of whom, the Clearinghouse report shows, ultimately do complete their degrees.

The data from the Clearinghouse report are interesting, but they’re not enough. We need a public version of the Clearinghouse to answer the other questions important to students and families, researchers, and policymakers. We still don’t know how many community college students wanted to earn a four-year degree and never transferred. We don’t know which specific institutions are helping transfer students graduate and which aren’t serving those populations well. Those, and a whole host of other questions, could—and should—be answered with a national student-level database.

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