Kansas ranks No. 1 in community college students going on to four-year degrees

Registered nurse Julia Glenn finished her degree at KU after starting out at a community college.
Registered nurse Julia Glenn finished her degree at KU after starting out at a community college. The Kansas City Star

When Julia Glenn was ready to transfer from community college to a four-year school for her bachelor’s degree, Kansas made it easy.

Under a state program, credits earned at a community college are completely accepted at all public universities in the state.

Education officials say that program has a lot to do with Kansas’ standing in a new report on students completing their college education within six years. Kansas, it turns out, is the national leader in the percentage of community college students who continue on to get a degree from a four-year institution.

“The majority of my credits from Kansas City Kansas Community College transferred easily to the University of Kansas,” said Glenn, who last year graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from KU. At 23, she now works full time at Shawnee Mission Medical Center.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s annual report lists only six states — Virginia, Iowa, North Dakota, Texas and Illinois, along with Kansas — as seeing 20 percent or more of students who started at a two-year public school finish with a degree from a four-year institution.

Kansas had the highest rate at 25.2 percent. Missouri, at 17.8 percent, finished ahead of the national average of 16.2 percent.

“It was exciting to read the results presented in this new report … in part because it validates the collaborative approach we have taken in Kansas across all public post-secondary institutions,” said Andy Tompkins, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents.

“Student success is not just about whether a student graduates from the institution they started at, but rather whether they completed anywhere in the system or elsewhere or are still continuing to pursue their education.”

The 59-page report gives a state-by-state picture of how two- and four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities are doing at getting students through their institutions. The study focused on first-time freshmen who entered college in fall 2008, at the height of the recession. The students were followed through May 2014.

Glenn said her plan had always been that once she finished at the community college she would seek a bachelor’s degree. But she points to the state’s easy credit transfer program for keeping her in Kansas.

While tuition may have been cheaper elsewhere, leaving the state would have cost her too many credits that wouldn’t transfer, she said.

“That would just be money and time down the drain,” Glenn said. “Besides, by the time I would have paid to take those credits over, the cost would have balanced out anyway.”

Cost and improving the pathway from community college to a four-year institution are strategies that significantly influence college completion rates, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Because so many students who seek a bachelor’s degree start the journey at a community college, removing barriers to transfer is critical to students staying the course to completion, the center said.

It’s why common-course numbering systems and uniformed credit acceptance agreements between community colleges and four-year-schools “are becoming much more common,” said Tabitha Whissemore, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Missouri higher education officials said they have similar efforts underway to simplify the move from community college to four-year university. One initiative, a statewide Course Transfer Library, started in 2012. It includes a list of 26 courses that transfer with full credit and equivalency at all the state’s public schools and at some private schools. State officials said adding courses to the library is an ongoing process.

“We are focused on removing barriers that can prevent students from completing a degree,” said Rusty Monhollon, Missouri’s assistant commissioner for academic affairs.

The Clearinghouse report comes six years after President Barack Obama called for states to increase the number of people ages 25 to 34 getting college credentials, both to expand the pool of skilled workers and to allow the U.S. to reclaim a more competitive place in the global market.

In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in the number of young adults with a college education. Today it ranks 12th.

Kansas and Missouri lawmakers and education officials have set goals to raise the percentage of people in their states with a college degree or certification to 60 percent within the next five to 10 years.

“In Missouri we call it the ‘big goal,’” said David Russell, state commissioner of higher education. “We can’t get there unless we figure out how to keep more of these kids in school once they get there.”

In Missouri, 38 percent of adults ages 25-64 hold a two- or four-year college degree, according to 2013 Census data. In Kansas, it’s 42 percent.

“Our system has been working to achieve this goal through a collaborative, system-wide approach,” said Kansas’ Tompkins. “We feel proud of our accomplishments thus far and the validation of those approaches as demonstrated by this report.”

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.