For many students, community colleges used to be just the first step on the way up the post-secondary ladder. No more.
A new study by the Maryland Higher Education Commission has uncovered what some educators are calling a troubling trend: Fewer community college students are transferring to four-year colleges or staying in school long enough to obtain associate's degrees.
Instead, a majority of students are leaving community college with neither a degree nor a transfer to one of the state's public four-year institutions, the study found.
"What this data says to me, and to all of us in Maryland, is that we do, in fact, have a major challenge -- to reverse some very alarming trends," Community College of Baltimore County Chancellor Irving P. McPhail said yesterday.
Of 11,420 students who enrolled at the state's community colleges with a full-time course load in 1997, the study found, only 23.8 percent had transferred to one of the state's public four-year institutions by 2001. An additional 8.2 percent had graduated with an associate's degree or certificate but had not transferred.
The transfer rate represents an almost 19 percent drop during the past decade. Of the approximately 11,000 full-time students who signed up in 1989, 29.3 percent had transferred to one of the state's public four-year colleges within four years. An additional 9.6 percent had graduated without transferring.
The drop in transfer and graduation rates calls into question what for years has been a primary function of community colleges -- a place where students could affordably obtain an associate's degree or obtain general education credits before moving to a four-year college. National studies suggest that community colleges in other states are experiencing similar declines in transfer and graduation rates, the report stated.
The decline is especially notable, officials say, because the state's community colleges are also experiencing an increase in full-time enrollments, making it all the more important to determine what's happening to the majority of students who are neither graduating nor transferring.
Some state and college officials argue that the data aren't necessarily cause for alarm. During the booming economy of the late 1990s, they said, many community college students cut short their studies after finding they could get well-paid jobs without having a college degree.
It is also possible, some officials say, that fewer community college students are graduating or transferring to four-year schools because they didn't plan to do so in the first place, and were enrolling for a few semesters only to burnish their credentials.
"It obviously does concern us when you see slippage like this, but we try to put it in perspective of what else is happening," state higher education Secretary Karen Johnson said yesterday. "Some students go to community college just intending to improve their skills."
Others are skeptical of this explanation, noting that the study included only students who enrolled full time, not those who are taking a class or two a semester to upgrade a specific skill.
More likely, they say, is that students are dropping out of college, or dragging out their studies, despite their intention to graduate or transfer -- either because they don't have the time or money for classes, or because they are struggling with the coursework.
That's the case at the state's largest two-year school, Baltimore City Community College, where only about 15 percent of the students enrolled in 1997 had graduated or transferred four years later. Many of the remaining students have difficulty meeting state math requirements or balancing school and work, said college Vice President Barbara Hopkins.
"More students are staying longer because they have to take more remedial work, and more who start out full time take on work and have to drop to part time," she said.
The decline in transfer rates has been noticed at the state's four-year colleges, including the University of Baltimore, which relies on community college transfers for much of its undergraduate student body. Transfers "have been dropping, and it affects our enrollment," said acting President Ronald Legon.
Community colleges are seeking ways to address the problem, such as making it easier for students to transfer credits to the state's four-year colleges. Anne Arundel Community College is adding support services for at-risk students, Carroll Community College has a new program for first-year students and CCBC is focusing on improving performance by African-American students, whose transfer and graduation rates are below the state average.
Such reforms are occurring just in time, officials said. With the state's public four-year colleges becoming more selective, more students may turn to community colleges to ready them for admission to the next level.
"We have to make sure we are adequately preparing students to make their transfer requirements," said McPhail.