Skip to main content

Associate to Baccalaureate Transfers: The Two-Plus-Two

Students who are ultimately aiming for a bachelor's degree shouldn't rule out two-year community colleges (also known as junior colleges) from their list of possible choices. Though community colleges don't offer bachelor's degrees, the studies you complete there can count towards a bachelor's degree at another school.

This is the two-plus-two option, in which two-year college diplomas are recognized as the first two years of a four-year college degree. Transfer agreements between schools are making it easier than ever to transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges or universities, especially within the same state.

"More and more states have developed seamless transfer opportunities from partner colleges or junior colleges," says Cheryl Brown, director of undergrad admissions at Binghamton University in New York state. Each year, Binghamton has an average of about 1,000 transfer students -- of these, about half come from two-year schools.

In California, for example, all community and junior colleges participate in the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC). This is a transfer core curriculum that meets the basic educational requirements of several colleges.

"Golden Gate University honors IGETC guidelines for general education requirements," says Louis D. Riccardi Jr., director of enrollment services at San Francisco's Golden Gate University (GGU). Last year the school transferred about 130 students from two-year institutions.

Most two-year colleges in California highlight all IGETC-approved courses in their course catalogs. However, it's the students' responsibility to make sure that they have chosen courses with transferable credits if they aim to obtain a bachelor's degree.

"If the student does not know what four-year institution and program they'd like to transfer to, they may find out they're wasting time and money by taking courses that won't transfer," Riccardi points out. He offers this suggestion:

"If a student knows in advance that they want to come to GGU, they can secure a guaranteed transfer admission agreement with their transfer center and GGU to ensure a smooth transition. The benefit to the student is that they get to have regular contact with our counseling staff, who can advise them on courses to take and when to apply."

Riccardi also notes that undergraduates are given a "path to completion" explaining precisely which courses are needed to graduate.

Some students use community college to complete basic required classes before transferring to a four-year school. But it's not mandatory to have fixed long-term plans before going in. The community college option gives room to explore, though the course plan may have to be adjusted as the student's long-term goals take shape.

Albert Palmer is a student at Richland College, a community college in Dallas, Texas. "My initial plan for attending Richland College was to enhance some of my skills as a photographer," he says. He took courses in digital photography and learned how to use digital photo editing software.

"I also enrolled in a small business management course to teach me how to operate a business, inside and out," Palmer says.

"My small business management teacher was very good and very inspirational. Taking her class, and taking heed of some positive advice, I'm now seeking an associate's in management."

He plans to transfer to Southern Methodist University in the same city to earn his bachelor's degree in business administration. After that, he intends to enter SMU's graduate school and eventually earn a doctorate.

If a transfer becomes part of your plan, keep in mind that students don't necessarily need to earn a two-year degree before transferring. The work accomplished at a community college, especially the relevant completed courses, will be taken into account by the college you transfer to.

"We place the student at the appropriate level -- whether they have earned the AA [associate of arts] degree or not," says E. Vagos Hadjimichael, dean of the school of engineering at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Last year Fairfield admitted seven community college transfer students. "Every student will do the same curriculum required for graduation," he says.

"As a four-year institution, it really doesn't matter so much to us if the students get the degree or not," Brown says, "A student could transfer at any point in the cycle."

"We do a course-by-course evaluation," Riccardi says. "While the associate's degree is not necessarily important, the courses taken in the degree are essential.

A student can transfer in with zero [semester] units or up to 70 units from a community college. Many like to transfer with junior standing, having satisfied all of their lower division requirements." This route allows students to offset the cost of their studies in community college, he says.

Cost is, perhaps, the biggest reason students choose to attend community colleges, which are far more affordable than four-year schools. But there are other advantages too.

"Some students choose a community college because they haven't done as well in high school, and know that by doing well at a community college they can increase their chances of getting into a selective four-year school," Brown says. "Those students benefit by taking more courses at the community college so they can prove themselves and be confident that they can do the coursework at a rigorous four-year school."

Community colleges offer many opportunities besides the coursework, and students should take advantage of them. Palmer, for instance, has added extracurricular achievements to his coursework at Richland College. He is president of the African-American Latino Student Alliance and president of the Richland College Management Club. He was also one of three students selected from 88,000 candidates to attend a legislative summit in Washington, D.C. with the school's chancellor.

Riccardi says that besides cost and opportunities, there is another motivator for some California students choosing a community college. "There can be a fear factor in going to a four-year college," he says. "Community colleges are so promoted [in California] that many feel more comfortable going there first. It can be an advantage for a student to build their confidence, and then advance to the next level as they feel ready."

In terms of success with a subsequent bachelor's degree, most transfer students do as well at four-year schools as students who have been enrolled since their freshman year.

"At least here at Binghamton, they do extremely well," says Brown. "They do well academically. They take advantage of the career center, and they are recruited by the same employers who recruit students who came in as freshmen."

"Most of [the transfer students] are very motivated," Hadjimichael says. "All of them finish the program, some over more years than others. There has never been a case in recent years, that I know of, when a [community college] transfer student failed to graduate from Fairfield University." He adds that some of the engineering school's transfer students go on to pursue a master's degree.

"Making a transition between schools can be challenging at any point in one's education." says Riccardi. The key to a successful two-and-two community college/four-year college program is planning ahead.

"It's important for a student to know which four-year institution and what program they would like to transfer into," Riccardi says, "If they know exactly what makes up the basic proficiencies and foundation portion of a program, they can take the appropriate courses and feel confident that they're maximizing transfer credit."