How to Increase Bachelor’s Degree Attainment Among Community College Students

October 29, 2014

Contact: KC Deane
Program Manager
Aspen College Excellence Program
202-736-5816 |

How to Increase Bachelor’s Degree Attainment 
Among Community College Students
Aspen Institute initiates multi-year project with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Helmsley Charitable Trust

Washington, DC, October 29, 2014 –The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, in collaboration with Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™, begins this month a multi-year grant project to foster the adoption of effective practices—at both community colleges and four-year institutions—that lead to increased rates of bachelor’s degree attainment among students who start at community colleges. This project will combine student-level data analysis with field research to identify effective institutional policies and practices that support students’ completion of the bachelor’s degree, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The work is funded equally by two foundations, Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. 

Community colleges enroll more than 10 million students nationwide, including a disproportionate share of students from underserved populations, and represent an affordable starting point for students seeking a four-year degree. But there remains a significant disconnect between the aspirations of students who enroll at these institutions and their educational outcomes. While 80 percent of entering community college students report that they intend to attain at least a bachelor’s degree, Clearinghouse data indicate that only 17 percent do so within six years of when they begin at a community college.

The three partnering organizations will conduct in-depth research, with the findings driving the development and promotion of a new definition of transfer success. The project will identify and profile institutions that, in partnership, are especially effective in helping transfer students earn bachelor’s degrees, with a special focus on economically disadvantaged students and those pursuing STEM fields. These findings will contribute to a quantitative research report that surveys the characteristics of effective STEM and non-STEM transfer partnerships, as well as a practice guide that provides direction on building an effective community college-university transfer partnership within and outside of STEM fields.

“Students who enroll in community colleges need to know that their schools are prepared to help them succeed and move on to four-year institutions, if that’s their ambition,” said LaVerne Srinivasan, Carnegie Corporation’s Acting Vice President, National Program. “At the same time, four-year colleges need to establish policies and practices that increase the likelihood of success for greater numbers of transferring students. This project will shine a light on how some community colleges and four-year institutions are doing those things well, so others can learn.” 

Jobs in STEM fields offer strong growth prospects and wage averages for students, but gaps remain: African-American and Latino students, who make up over a third of the community college population, are only 12 percent of STEM workers. “Earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field offers significant economic opportunity for minority students, many of whom start their postsecondary education at a community college. Unfortunately, too many of these students don’t complete their degrees due to challenges with the transfer process,” said Ryan Kelsey at the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

“Each of the partner organizations brings a unique and important set of resources and skills to accomplishing the central goal of this project: identifying and replicating policies and practices that improve transfer students’ opportunities to succeed. We hope that this project, which addresses one of the most consequential inefficiencies in higher education today, will change the field,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program.


The Aspen College Excellence Program aims to advance higher education practices, policies, and leadership that significantly improve student outcomes. Through the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the New College Leadership Project, and other initiatives, the College Excellence Program works to improve colleges’ understanding and capacity to teach and graduate students, especially the growing population of low-income and minority students on American campuses. For more information, visit

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) is the leading independent authority on the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges. Founded in 1996, CCRC conducts research on the major issues affecting community colleges in the United States in order to identify practices and policies that expand access to higher education and promote success for all students. For more information, visit

The National Student Clearinghouse, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization, houses data with a nationwide coverage of postsecondary enrollment and degree records, making it a leading source of verifications, data exchange and reporting services for postsecondary institutions and student service providers. More than 3,600 colleges and universities, enrolling over 98% of all students in public and private degree-granting institutions in the U.S., participate in the Clearinghouse. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to conduct and support objective research related to educational enrollment, progression and completion for the benefit of students, institutions, and the broader public. For more information, visit

Carnegie Corporation of New York was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” In keeping with this mandate, the Corporation’s work focuses on the issues that Andrew Carnegie considered of paramount importance: international peace, the advancement of education and knowledge, and the strength of our democracy.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits in health, place-based initiatives, and education and human services. Since 2008, when the Trust began its active grantmaking, it has committed more than $1 billion to a wide range of charitable organizations. The Trust’s Education Program seeks to advance American economic competitiveness as well as individual social mobility. In K-12, the Trust supports the adoption and implementation of policies aligned with college- and career-ready academic standards, and the development and dissemination of resources, training and exemplary instructional practices that educators need to enact these policies in classrooms. In higher education, the Trust’s goal is to increase college completion rates and the number of college graduates in STEM fields. The program focuses on supporting networks of institutions committed to improving instructional practices, primarily for gateway courses, and on incentivizing the adoption of model policies, practices and systems that improve student retention and completion, particularly for underrepresented students. For more information, visit

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