The Economic Benefits of Attaining an Associate's Degree Before Transfer

August 2013 | Houston, Texas
BY: Amy Williams

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University has released The Economic Benefits of Attaining an Associate Degree Before Transfer study report by Clive Belfield. This research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is based on data gathered from North Carolina.

In this study, Belfield investigates whether the acquisition of an Associate’s Degree (AA) before enrolling in a four-year Institution is ideal from an economic and student success rate perspective, and when the best time to transfer might be. The study also takes on a separate factor: the drop-out probability of both of these options.

“The decision about the best time to transfer involves consideration of several factors, most notably the respective costs and benefits of a community college education versus one at a four-year college,” Belfied explained.

In this study, Belfield explored other factors, such as the value of combined or separate presence and absence of AA and BA degrees in practical terms. Aspects such as time consumption, course credit overlap and labor market also are taken into account.

This type of research is important because it impacts a wide range of postsecondary providers.

“Community colleges may be under pressure to let students transfer as early as possible. Four-year colleges may be under pressure if increasing numbers of underprepared students enroll; alternatively, four-year colleges may benefit from having more students in their lower-level, large section courses,” said Belfied.

The study’s results support the assumption that “students with more credits earn more,” showing an earnings increase of .45% per two-year college credit and a .65-percent increase per four-year college credit. Therefore, students who enroll in a two-year college, graduate with an AA and then transfer to a four-year institution will — upon completion of a Bachelor’s degree — gain a higher net benefit than those who transferred early or enrolled immediately in a four-year institution.

See the results from Belfield’s study below:


“Deciding when to transfer requires consideration of multiple factors and how these factors interact . . . this uncertainty may be mitigated by longer enrollment at the two-year college: Students will then have more knowledge about their own likelihood of completion and so make a more successful transfer decision,” said Belfied.

View the full research report online and visit the Community College Research Center for more college-related publications.