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Role of 2-Year Colleges in Earning 4-Year Degrees Examined

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Students pursuing a college education have a better chance of earning a bachelor's degree if they bypass community colleges and enroll in four-year institutions, a new study suggests.

The controversial study, which was released last week, challenges two widely held assumptions about community colleges: that they increase the proportion of high school graduates who continue their education and that they carve a path toward a bachelor's degree that is both affordable and achievable.

The study was conducted by Faith G. Paul, a researcher in education policy at the University of Chicago, and Gary Orfield, a professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Ms. Paul and Mr. Orfield drew on national data from the U.S. Education Department's High School and Beyond study to examine students' college-persistence rates.

The researchers also compared higher-education systems in five states to show how community colleges are used in different educational arrangements, and how those arrangements affect degree completion.

"Reliance on community colleges [by certain states] not only forced large numbers of students to start at a community college, but made transfer as selective as initial entry,'' the authors write in "State Higher Education Systems and College Completion.''

"Thus,'' they add, "students initially excluded from a baccalaureate campus had to qualify subsequently at as high, or higher, a level than the one they were unprepared for in the first place.''

"The academic experience at the community college,'' they write, "cannot equal the teaching-learning experience at the four-year campuses in depth and breadth of the academic program, faculty quality in the rigor of reading, writing, and analytical thinking, in library and laboratory resources and experiences.''

Generating Controversy

The study, funded by the Ford Foundation, has raised the ire of some community-college officials.

The researchers "look at the proper outcome of a community college as a four-year degree ... and that is just simply off base,'' said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Mr. Reinhard said many community-college students attend part time, are working, may already have a bachelor's degree, and are perhaps seeking to improve their job skills or simply to experience personal growth.

"What Orfield and Paul have tried to do in this study is to force, or kind of stuff, community colleges into the four-year model,'' Mr. Reinhard said.

If rate of student transfers to four-year colleges is a problem, he added, then such schools must share the blame.

But Mr. Orfield said the study represents the starting point for a needed discussion, and he and Ms. Paul suggest in the report other areas of scholarship on the topic that could prove useful.

"It's an exploratory study,'' he said in an interview. "It's not meant to be the last word on the subject.''

According to the report, the High School and Beyond data on high school graduates in 1980 and 1982 showed that racial minorities, the low-income, and low achievers--often considered those targeted for community colleges--were the least likely to transfer to four-year institutions.

When they did, the researchers report, they were less likely to obtain a bachelor's degree.

In addition, Ms. Paul and Mr. Orfield contend, data from the five states indicate that community colleges do not always provide an alternative route to a bachelor's degree.

Five-State Comparison

In studying higher-education systems in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, Ms. Paul and Mr. Orfield "found that those states with the least reliance on community colleges had high freshman baccalaureate enrollment and higher bachelor-degree attainment.''

At the same time, they found, "those states with the largest proportional reliance on community colleges frequently had low freshman baccalaureate enrollment and much lower bachelor-degree attainment.''

In 1988, the report found, first-year students in Indiana and Wisconsin, where there are fewer community colleges or where their primary mission is to serve as a transfer vehicle, enrolled in four-year colleges at the rates of 77 percent and 51.6 percent, respectively.

On the other hand, in Florida and California, where there is a heavy reliance on community colleges and enrollment in four-year colleges is tied to test-score performance, 23.3 percent and 37.9 percent, respectively, of students enrolled in four-year colleges.

The comparison remained consistent throughout the 1980's, the researchers said.

Indiana and Wisconsin also exceeded Florida and California in college graduates as a proportion of their total higher-education enrollment in 1988 and throughout the 1980's, the report said.

The Illinois higher-education model fell between the two sets of states on the first-year enrollee data and on the bachelor's-degree data.

Copies of the report are available for $15 each, prepaid, from the Public Policy Research Consortium, 2143 Ash Lane, Northbrook, Ill. 60062; (708) 272-0775.

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