Students play football at the Quad, on the campus of Harvard University on January 27, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Students play football at the Quad, on the campus of Harvard University on January 27, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. - 

Most community college students say they want to transfer to a four-year school and finish their degree, but new data say only a fraction actually do it.

Nationwide, just 14 percent students end up transferring and earning a Bachelor's degree within six years, according to a study released Tuesday by the Columbia University Community College Research Center. Along with the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, researchers tracked 720,000 students who enrolled in community college in fall 2007.

The report notes that rates varied wildly between states. Wyoming, Montana and Maryland fared best, with an 18 percent BA completion rate for community college students. The worst? South Dakota and West Virginia at 2 and 5 percent, respectively. Some states saw a lot of students transfer but few graduate, others saw the inverse. 

Of those students who did transfer from a community college to a private school, about 42 percent got their degree within six years of starting community college. When they transferred into a private school, that rate sagged below a third and cratered at for-profit colleges to around 10 percent. The report also found students were much more likely to get their degree if they transferred to a more selective school. Students from higher-income families were also more likely to graduate after transferring. Compare those completion rates to students who start at a four-year school; 60 percent of them earn their BA, according to Columbia.

Even if transfer students have everything going for them, the report says it all comes down to the schools themselves and how they support transfer students. Four-year institutions that appeared similar on paper sometimes had wildly different graduation rates.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Tony Wagner at @tonydwagner