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Is community college a stepping stone? That depends

If you could pick up a college degree for about half the sticker price, you would, right?

If so, you've got company. More than 80 percent of community college students say when they start there they expect to continue on and eventually earn a bachelor's degree from a four-year college or university.

Yet most students fail in that goal, according to a recently published study by the Center for Community College Research at Columbia University's Teachers College. One-third of the roughly 720,000 students who enrolled in community colleges in 2007 for the first time and were seeking degrees actually transferred to a four-year school, and only 42 percent earned a bachelor's degree within six years — far below the 60 percent completion rate for students who started at four-year colleges and universities.

Among first-time, degree-seeking community college students overall, only 14 percent managed to earn a bachelor's degree within six years, the study found.

"Too many students are failed by the current system of transfer between community colleges and universities," said Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the center, when announcing the release of the study.

For students who complete a four-year degree after starting at a community college, the tactic is clearly a money saver. Tuition, fees, and room and board at community colleges averaged $9,282 for the 2013-14 academic year, according to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, those costs at public four-year schools averaged $18,110, and at private nonprofit four-year schools, it was $40,708.

Many community college students face hurdles well beyond tuition. For one thing, community college students tend to be older: some 73 percent of students at two-year public colleges were under age 25 in the fall of 2013, well below the 88 percent of students at public four-year schools and 86 percent of those at private nonprofit four-year schools.

Older students are more likely to attend school part time, and to hold down a job while doing so. And about 30 percent of community college students are parents.

Low cost and the fact that anyone with a high school diploma can attend make community college "much more attractive to low-income individuals and first-generation students," said Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees.

"Their parents may not be able to advise them about how college works. They often come in with little to no knowledge of the process."

In addition, whatever a student's background, community colleges may do little to help students integrate, Brown said. "Often they are still basically given a course catalog and told, 'Pick some classes.' "

The hands-off approach at many community colleges can have several unintended effects.

For example, students may wind up choosing courses that do not come together in a major, or whose credits will not be counted toward a degree at a four-year school. That can mean a student who does manage to transfer to a four-year school may need more time there to complete degree requirements, which will eat into the money saved by attending community college.

All of this contributes to a community college graduation rate of just 20 percent within three years of enrollment, according to the Department of Education.

Certainly, a number of students who do not graduate never planned to go that route, having enrolled to take a few courses to retool their career or for some other reason.

But failing to graduate from community college can be just as challenging as not graduating from a four-year school for students who have taken out loans. Some 17 percent of community college students borrow for their education, according to the Association of Community College Trustees, and though the amounts may be small, students who fail to graduate are more likely to default.

There is good news for students planning to go the community college route, however. A number of schools are focusing more on helping students complete their associate's degrees and making them better informed about what college entails, Brown said.

Things are shifting at the university level as well. The University of Central Florida has relationships with multiple area community and state college campuses, for example. Students who are planning to earn a bachelor's degree when they enroll at community college check a box on their application to sign up for a program called Direct Connect, and they are guaranteed admission if they earn their associate's degree.

About 71 percent of Direct Connect students have graduated within six years of transferring, according to Dale Whittaker, provost and executive vice president of the university.

UCF has agreements with its partner schools so that they do not duplicate degree offerings, he said. And it recently added university advisors on partner campuses to start advising Direct Connect students once they earn 30 credits, so they avoid taking classes that will not apply to their degree. The university recently won approval for a new campus that will be fully integrated with one of its partners, Valencia College.

"We measure our success by who we include rather than who we exclude," Whittaker said. "We remove family income as a predictor of college success. If you do that, then this structure makes a lot of sense."

Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A few flagship institutions are taking similar steps. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a program, albeit smaller than Direct Connect, to help low-income, high-achieving community college students transfer to and graduate from the university. Students who participate in the program enroll at a community college and earn an associate's degree with a grade point average of 3.2 or higher, and UNC officials send advisors to their campuses and bring them to UNC during their time in community college.

"We don't want transfer students to feel as if they are walking into a conversation that other people have been having for a couple of years," said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions.

Four-year schools will have more incentives to work with community colleges in the future, Jenkins, the researcher, said. The nonelites, they need the enrollment, he said.

Their tuition charges have risen as state funding has been cut, and "middle-class families who would have gone to the state university are sending kids to the community colleges." With cash-strapped states reluctant to finance new campus construction, there is also a capacity issue for some four-year schools that can make integration with community colleges more appealing.

That is good news for students since for now, at least, the cost of community college is on track to stay relatively low.

"For the consumer, community colleges can be a good route" to a four-year degree, Jenkins said. But to make it work, students need to actively seek out support and guidance. "It's a good deal if you are aggressive," he said.