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Transferring and Restrictive Access to College Majors

Community College Insights
August 3, 2023

The number of major-specific admission requirements that students must meet before declaring a major has increased significantly over the past 20 years. These restrictions often apply to high-wage premium majors (e.g., STEM fields, business, and nursing) and generally take the form of grade requirements in prerequisite courses or an application process for admission into the major. Institutions reportedly have these requirements to manage capacity and budget concerns and, according to some, to ensure that graduates will perform well in the workplace.

The Brookings Institution Center for Economic Security and Opportunity recently released a study about the effect of major restrictions and how they drive underrepresented minority (URM) students toward majors where graduates earn lower wages compared to non-URM students. Brookings estimates that movement away from these high-wage majors can account for approximately 10 percent of the overall wage gap between URM and non-URM graduates. Brookings finds that the reduction of URM students in lucrative majors is not driven by changes in preferences or academic preparation. The authors conclude that the "rise in stratification largely originates from campus policies affecting access to majors."

So, what does this mean for community college students who plan to transfer to four-year institutions in the Fifth District? The Brookings study focuses on nontransfer students, but students transferring from community colleges may face additional hurdles that make the rise in major restrictions at four-year institutions especially challenging.

The Impact on Transfers From Community Colleges

It is well documented that community colleges educate a significant number of undergraduates, many of whom are URM students who will transfer to four-year institutions after earning course credits or an associate degree. So, what could restrictive major policies mean for Fifth District community college students who intend on transferring to a four-year institution?

Transferring from a community college to a four-year institution can be challenging. Even with proper planning, students may find they have many credits that either do not transfer or do not count toward their degree. To help mitigate these problems, community colleges have articulation and guaranteed admission agreements with partner institutions. These agreements outline the requirements students must meet to gain admission to an institution and transfer successfully. In Virginia, for example, all public universities must have these types of agreements with community colleges. However, the universities can make these agreements available only for certain schools within the institution (e.g., Arts and Sciences or Education). In addition, community colleges have partnered with universities to create bridge programs, provide academic advisers who specialize in transfers, and give students other resources to navigate the transfer process. Even with all of these resources, many community college students are likely unaware of the major restrictions at certain public universities as they make their transfer plan. Once matriculating to the university, these restrictions may derail their course of study.

A Tale of Two Universities

Major restrictions are more prevalent in highly selective public universities than less selective ones. To investigate how these policies might impact a community college student in the Fifth District, we looked at the potential transfer path to two different universities in Virginia: a regional public university (School A) and a highly selective public research university (School B). We assume that the hypothetical student attends a school in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) and has completed a transfer-oriented associate degree in business with a GPA that would be suitable for admission to both schools. We also assume that the student's goal is to attain a bachelor's degree in business.

School A provides a guaranteed admissions agreement (GAA) in partnership with VCCS that covers all university majors. In short, this means that if the student has finished an associate degree with a GPA of 2.8 or higher, they are guaranteed admission into the university as a business major and have their general education requirements waived. In this scenario, the student could easily transfer all their community college credits and complete their bachelor's degree in business within two years after transferring.

School B, on the other hand, has a GAA with VCCS, but that GAA does not include their business school. To become a business major, School B requires an application and completion of prerequisite business courses. School B's website indicates that their business school only admitted 20 percent of applicants in 2022 who transferred into the institution. In addition, the average GPA of accepted transfer students into the business school was 3.87. The acceptance rate and GPA of transfer students are very different from the 61 percent acceptance rate and an average GPA of 3.74 for students who enrolled at the institution as college freshmen.

Once a transfer student is admitted into the business major, the hurdles continue. Since there is no GAA for business students, transfer students with an associate degree would not have their general education requirements waived. Thus, at School B, transfer students would either need to have completed coursework at their community college that mirrors the general education curriculum at the business school or would have to take additional courses. Because some of these required courses lie outside of a standard associate degree curriculum at most community colleges, it is likely that community college transfers admitted into the business major would have to take additional prerequisite coursework.


What does this mean for community college transfer students? First, the choice of a four-year institution matters, and the opportunities for transfer students at the institutions are not always transparent. Second, major restrictions at competitive public universities can result in community college transfer students being pushed to majors that result in less lucrative careers. This is an especially serious challenge for URM students, and as the Brookings study highlights, the shift to these careers is not driven by preference. Given that a large percentage of URM students attend community colleges, it is possible that these major restrictions are engendering the wage disparity that higher education is trying to mitigate.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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