Tough Questions for Transfer Students

Researchers find that the quality of lower division courses may have more impact than students realize.
December 4, 2006

Say you’re a student, trying to save some money, and you're trying to figure out which local institution to attend. Do you go for the least expensive or the best quality? According to new research, your best investment is to spend the money, which many times would lead someone to a four-year institution.

“The benefits are clear and significant,” said one co-author of the study, Rey Hernandez-Julian, an assistant professor of economics at Metropolitan State College of Denver. The study -- which comes at a time of increased attention to transfer issues, because so many students attend multiple institutions -- was published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. “The students from four-year institutions are better prepared than the transfer students from a community college,” he said.

To derive these findings, the researchers examined the grades of students who transferred to Clemson University. The students were divided into those who came from less selective versus more selective institutions. (The less selective institutions were generally, but not exclusively, community colleges.) Students transferring from more selective education programs garnered slightly higher grades in their upper division courses. Although small, this increase was statistically significant. Further, calculated across a lifetime of earnings, these better grades translate into more income than the higher cost of attending a more selective institution for the first two years.

“They learn more by going to high quality schools,” said the other co-author, Angela Dills, an assistant economics professor at Clemson. “And it is worth it economically.”

Tim Sass, a professor of economics at Florida State University whose research explores similar issues, said that the study provides good, convincing evidence that lower division classes at selective colleges are better. But he remains cautious about the economic conclusions. “The general concept is sound, but I would be less confident in the dollar value of that differential,” he said.

The research on community college transfer students remains mixed, said Joshua Wyner, vice president of programs for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. A number of variables may be at play and not accounted for in the study. He noted that students from two-year colleges have more difficulty adjusting to university academics than their competitors transferring from four-year colleges. This report may be measuring that outcome.

“The alternate explanation is that Clemson is not doing enough to ameliorate this effect,” he said.

But Dills said that the report should help students make better choices when investing their money in higher education. The Clemson transfer students came from a broad background of institutions, matching similar trends found at other universities. “Our sample looks like much of what is occurring across the U.S.,” she said.


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