College students have become increasingly mobile. In fact, more than two-thirds of bachelor’s degree earners attend two or more institutions before earning their degree, including the more than 43 percent of bachelor’s degree earners with previous enrollment at a community college.[1] This share would likely be even higher if students faced fewer obstacles, like credit loss at the point of transfer, when moving between community colleges and four-year institutions. While four out of every five community college students initially plan to earn a bachelor’s degree, less than one-third transfer to a four-year institution, and only 13 percent graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

In the state of Washington, 45 percent of bachelor’s degree earners at its public universities transfer from a Washington community and technical college (CTC), similar to the average transfer rate nationally. Considering how many students in Washington take this path to a credential, it is important for the state to understand how various transfer pathways and transfer degrees impact student outcomes. To that end, every two years the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) submits a report on transfer associate degree effectiveness to the state legislature. This year, WSAC partnered with Ithaka S+R to prepare the 2023 report, which focused on transfer students’ academic outcomes; how those outcomes compared to those of direct entry students; and the extent to which outcomes differed by students’ demographic and academic characteristics.

Through our analysis of institution- and state-level data from Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) and Education Research & Data Center (ERDC), including its Public Centralized Higher Education Enrollment System (PCHEES), we identified the following key insights and trends on the effectiveness of transfer associate degrees in Washington.

Transfer degrees have become an increasingly popular pathway in Washington.

At community and technical colleges, a growing share of students both enrolled in and earned transfer degrees[2] relative to professional or technical degrees. During the fall of 2021, 56 percent of CTC postsecondary credential-seeking students were enrolled in a transfer degree program, up from 48 percent in fall 2019. Among major-specific transfer degrees, Nursing continued to grow in popularity, while Business, Pre-Nursing, and the Associate of Science – Transfer Track 2 (AS-T 2) also remained popular degrees.

Transfer degrees have also become an increasingly common pathway to a bachelor’s degree. Nearly one-third of students who graduated from a public institution with a bachelor’s degree in 2020-21 entered with a CTC transfer degree, compared to less than one-quarter of bachelor’s degree earners in the 2018-19 academic year.

Students who transferred, including those who earned a transfer degree, demonstrated success in key postsecondary outcomes.

Among bachelor’s degree graduates at public four-year institutions, those who entered with a transfer degree academically outperformed their peers who entered a four-year directly from high school. Between 2017–18 and 2020-21, the median bachelor’s degree earner who entered a public four-year institution with a transfer degree consistently had a higher institutional GPA than either the median graduate who transferred without a degree or the median direct-entry graduate. In addition, across all racial and ethnic groups, the four-year graduation rate of students who transferred into a public four-year institution during the 2016-17 academic year was higher than the six-year graduation rate of those who entered directly from high school two years earlier.

Smooth credit transfer processes are key to providing transfer students an efficient pathway toward a bachelor’s degree.

Transfer students’ ability to count previously earned credits toward degree requirements at their new institution affects the cumulative number of credits they attempt and earn, as well as the amount of time and money it takes to complete their degree. From 2017-18 through 2020-21, the median bachelor’s degree earner who transferred into a public institution graduated with more credits than the median graduate who entered directly from high school, though the extent of this discrepancy varied by graduates’ age, race and ethnicity, major area, and socioeconomic status (measured by whether a student received a Washington College Grant). We also identified a relationship between students’ transfer pathway and the cumulative number of credits they earned. The median graduate who transferred with a degree accumulated fewer credits than the median graduate who transferred without one, and across most major areas, the median graduate who transferred with a major-specific transfer degree earned fewer credits than the median graduate who transferred with a more general transfer degree or without a degree.

Washington’s CTC students can still benefit from greater access to and success at the state’s four-year institutions.

Not all students who enroll in a transfer degree program at a Washington CTC and intend to transfer do so. While both first-year retention rates and six-year transfer-out rates at community and technical colleges were higher for those enrolled in transfer degree programs than their peers in professional and technical programs, fewer than half of students who entered a transfer degree program between 2010 and 2015 successfully transferred to a four-year institution. In addition, outcomes varied across racial and ethnic subgroups. It is promising that the number of transfer degrees awarded to Black and multiracial students has increased in recent years, and that major-specific transfer degrees—which often provide a more efficient path to a bachelor’s degree—were awarded to Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander students at above-average rates. However, the post-transfer outcomes for students from historically marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds have yet to catch up, as four-year graduation rates at public institutions for Black, Hispanic, and multiracial transfer students remained lower than those of their peers.

Avenues for future research

The report revealed a number of key insights into the role of various types of transfer degrees and their relationship to transfer student outcomes, which will be invaluable as Washington explores ways to improve and streamline its already robust set of transfer pathways. It also calls attention to opportunities for additional research. Future research on transfer in Washington should seek to better understand key points in Washington’s postsecondary pipeline that likely influence student outcomes, including credit loss at the point of transfer. It should also incorporate a broader sample of students, including students who intended to transfer but did not, as well as students who transferred but did not graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Concentrating future research efforts on the students who have not been served well by transfer pathways and the points along the pathway at which these students drop off can help to guide policy efforts to support higher-impact interventions and direct limited resources to the student populations that could benefit most from a smoother postsecondary pipeline.


  1. This statistic excludes dual enrollments. Including dual enrollments, the share of bachelor’s degree earners with previous enrollment at a community college is 49 percent.
  2. Washington’s CTCs offer three types of transfer associate degrees: the Direct Transfer Agreement (DTA) associate degree, the Associate of Science — Transfer Degree (AS-T), and Major Related Programs (MRPs). Transfer degrees provide an opportunity for students intending to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program to complete most lower division general education requirements at a CTC and transfer with junior standing and 90 transferrable quarter credits.