In November 2023, the U.S. Department of Education released new data about bachelor’s degree completion rates for transfer students. I have been interested in transfer students for years and it is a topic that I want to better understand. I use this blog to remember the data I read about and capture my initial thoughts. It is also a place for me to explore using data visualization tools.


The researchers defined a dyad as a pair of institutions consisting of a public community college and a public or private four-year institution. The data only includes pairs where at least 30 students enrolled in the community college in 2014 and at least 30 students transferred and graduated from the four-year institution in at least 8 years. Nationally they identified 385 dyads, of which 8 were in Maryland.

Success of DYADS

Montgomery College belongs to four of the eight dyads in Maryland, showing that Montgomery College has a robust transfer program.

Maryland’s most successful dyad is students who transferred from Wor-Wic Community College to Salisbury University; 10% of students who transferred using that pathway graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, there were only 18 dyads with completion rates of more than 10%. The most successful dyad, Tri-County Technical College X Clemson University, had a completion rate of 20%. Kapiolani Community College X University of Hawaii at Manoa had a completion rate of 16%. Followed by four dyads with a completion rate of 13%, four dyads with a completion rate of 12%, and eight dyads with a completion rate of 11%.

Size of Transfer Programs

In addition to the completion rate of students transferring in a dyad, it is interesting to examine the size of a dyad program because in my mind a truly successful dyad will have both a high completion rate and be the "right" size. What the "right" size is I'm not sure of yet, but of a size that shows that is sufficient to support the continued transfer of students and meets the needs of the students.

The largest number of students transferred from the Community College of Baltimore County to Towson University (2,282). It looks like all transfer students from Montgomery College who transferred to a four-year institution are counted in all four Montgomery College dyads, since the number of transfer students in the denominator is 1,856 for all four dyads. This is not something I fully understood when first looking at the data. If this is true, Montgomery College has a very high total completion rate of nearly 17%.

I experimented to make a chart showing both the number of students who transferred to a four-year institution and the number of students who completed a bachelor's degree. I sorted it by percentage of students who completed a bachelor's degree. I believe the chart works fairly well at illustrating all the data, and it helped me see the potential issue with the Montgomery College data at the same time.

UnLabeled Category Limits Use of Data

After my last post about community college outcomes using data published by the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), I went in search of more data to get a better sense of the story. I want to know what happens to students that initially enroll in a Maryland community college. I found some data published by the Maryland Longitudinal Data System (MLDS) Center in 2016. It is almost exactly the data I am looking for, unfortunately, there was an unlabeled category that consisted of 25% of the cohort. With this unknown category being such a large part of the pie, I feel that the data is of limited use for really understanding the outcomes of community college enrollees. Despite my belief that the data may be limited, I am going to take a closer look at the data to see if I can learn anything from it.

It is also unclear the time frame after enrollment that the data covers. I know that the population is community college students that were enrolled during the 2008-2009 academic year. I also know that the data was published in 2016. It is unclear if the data set is all students; first-time, full-time students; or another population. I think that my next step may be to contact MLDS Center to clarify what data is being presented. There may have been additional information in the documentation that I have missed.

When I publish graphs in the future I want to be sure to be clear about the data that is presented. In education public policy I feel that this is especially important as the specifics matter. For example, a cohort of first-time full-time students is not the same as a cohort of all community college students.

If Data is Accurate: Few CC STudents Transfer; Fewer earn a BA

If this data is accurate, few community college students transfer to a Maryland four-year institution, only about 6% of the cohort. This is much less than the 12% of the first-time, full-time cohort in the data reported by MHEC. This leads me to believe that the transfer rate in this data source may be underestimated. I wish that I could trust that this data is fully accurate because, unlike the other data source, this data source reports the percent of students that earned a bachelor's from a Maryland four-year institution after transfer. It shows the specific community college to four-year institution pathway to a bachelor's degree that some experts recommend, especially to lower-income students as a method to save money. But it isn't a method to save money if students do not actually end up earning a degree. According to this data, 1% of the students (421 students) that begin at a community college earn a BA from a Maryland four-year institution.

If only 1% of a community college cohort earn a BA, then that pathway to a BA is broken. However, I need to dig into the data more, because other data sources report a slightly less bleak picture. According to data published by the Aspen Institute, which is shown below, nationwide 14% of community college students earn a BA within six years of transfer. However, like the MLDS data I discussed above, I am not sure of the student population, so I need to do more research into the data. Overall I need to better understand the data sources before I make any conclusions.

A Note About THis Data Presentation

As I have said in previous posts I have really been loving playing with data presentation using datawrapper. However, for the multiple pie charts shown above I ran into a few issues. Firstly, the website was being glitchy, not showing changes I had made to the graph and hiding the graph completely. Second, I was not able to make this type of graph look exactly how I wanted it to look. I did not want to show the percent for the grayed-out space and that was not an option because the categories are not the same. This is not surprising, I think that for that type of functionality I would need a graphic designer and not a web application. So while there are a few issues, I am still extremely happy with datawrapper. I am just trying to document for myself the limits of its functionality.

Commmunity college Graduation and Transfer Data

According to the Career and College Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013, it is the State’s goal that all degree-seeking students enrolled in a public community college earn an associate’s degree before leaving the community college or transferring to a public four-year higher education institution. Therefore the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) tracks community college students’ graduation and transfer outcomes. MHEC does not have the ability to follow students who transfer to out-of-state institutions. Therefore, the data only reflects transfers to institutions in Maryland.

For this data set, the analysis cohort is all first-time, full-time students entering Maryland community colleges within the fall term of a given year. Three successful outcome measures are tracked.

  • Graduated and transfered: Student graduated with an associate degree or lower-division certificate and transfered to a Maryland four-year college or university.
  • Graduated/Did not transfer: Student graduated from a Maryland community college with an associate degree or lower-division certificate and did not transfer to a Maryland four-year instituion.
  • Transferred to four-year college or univeristy without graduating: Student transferred to a Maryland four-year insitution, withou having completed an associate degree or lower-division certificate.

Now Most Community College Transfer Students Graduate Before Transfering

I decided to display the data as a line chart, but with different visual clues from MHEC’s original line chart. For my chart, I added shading between graduated and transferred and transferred without graduating. I like how it clearly shows that in 2014 the number of students who graduated before transferring surpassed those who transferred before graduating. Although the numbers had been trending in that way, the legislation likely had some impact.

I wish we had the data to analyze the outcome of both types of transfer students at four-year institutions. Past research suggests that the students that graduated community college first prior to transferring be more successful, but I wonder if this is still true. This might be a question to examine in the future.

64% of a Cohort does not transfer or graduate in four years

The line chart above does not capture the approximately 64% of the cohort that do not graduate or transfer within four years, so I decided to make an area chart. The area chart shows that the majority of students that begin as first-time, full-time community college students do not graduate or transfer within four years. Although when the number of first-time, full-time students decreased after peaking during the Great Recession, the percent of students that did not graduate or transfer has dropped to about 60% of the cohort.

This data set does not capture if these students are still persisting or if they dropped out. It is also possible that these students transferred to a two-year or four-year institution out of State. This data set only captures a subset of successful outcomes for community college students: graduation and in-state transfer.

This chart reminds me that while measuring the success of transfer students that did or did not graduate is interesting and important, there are a large number of students that entered community college as full-time students who have not graduated or transferred.

Maryland Community College Student Outcomes

This data only tells part of the story of community college student outcomes, but it is a good place to start. One of the biggest issues in education public policy is the lack of data that tells the whole story. Another issue is knowing what data is important to analyze. I plan to continue to look for data to analyze.