10/28/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

The Two College Strategy Reduces the Benefits of College

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As an academic Dean I am often asked about colleges and universities by parents, grandparents and even the occasional high schooler. What schools give the most scholarships? What schools offer safe environments? What schools avoid having teaching assistants lead undergraduate classes?

In recent years, however, the questions have changed. First and foremost, the most asked question is about career opportunities. The selection of colleges seem to focus and where and how to get the best post-graduation jobs. In order to accommodate (pay for or get into) the best possible college, there is growing acceptance of, and curiosity around, what I call the Two College Strategy. Essentially, this means that the college you attend as a freshman is not the same as the college you expect to graduate from. The National Student Research Center Clearinghouse reports that a third of all students transfer colleges at least once, and a quarter at least twice. Some of this is due to the rise in adult learners, students over the age of 21 who attend college part time and are completing degrees that they started when they were just out of high school. This is an important and positive trend that enables many individuals to advance their careers despite challenging circumstances they may have faced as teenagers.

But there is another, not so positive trend, which is an increase in planned attendance at two or more schools, or the Two College Strategy. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports increases in the numbers of students who transfer, and worry that federal initiatives to report graduation rates will be seriously flawed due to this trend, since transfer students appear as "ungraduated" by the college they leave and are not counted as graduates by the colleges they move to.

Students may choose to attend two different undergraduate colleges for many different reasons, some of them truly beneficial and warranted. But here are the two most common examples I encounter of why students (or parents) are planning for the Two College Strategy, along with reasons why I believe they shouldn't.

1. I can save money by earning the first 60 credits at a community college, with the expectation of spending the last 2 years at an elite four-year school.

This strategy has long been advocated by Clark Howard. What worries me about this is that community colleges are dominated by students who do not earn a bachelor's degree. The percentage of students earning bachelor's degrees when they begin at community colleges is under 12 percent, compared with over 60 percent at four-year schools. In some states, like New Jersey, there is minimal risk that credits will not be transferred; however this is not generally the case across the nation. It is also questionable whether money is saved, since four year schools may offer significant discounts in the form of scholarships to incoming freshmen, but scholarships are rarely offered to transfer students. In 2014, enrollments at 2 year schools amounted to roughly 1/3 of all college enrollments in the U.S., over 6 million students.

2. Since I didn't get into my first choice school, I plan to start at my second choice school and then transfer to the first place school after freshman year.

National data again indicates that a lower likelihood of graduation will result. In addition, students miss out on the greatest benefits which attracted them to the school in the first place: the lifelong friendships you make as a freshman; placement success in a job or graduate school as a result of making valuable connections with faculty, staff, other students; the transformational experiences you may realize by studying abroad or engaging in service learning activities, not to mention, the loyalty and affinity for the school itself which leads to lifelong networking benefits. Colleges, by and large, devote a great deal of resources into "freshmen" or first year experiences. They don't, as a rule, devote similar resources into students who arrive after freshman year.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to affirm the value of a college degree in lifetime earnings. But a college degree offers many intangible benefits to both traditional age and adult students. Both of these types of benefits may be reduced when students pursue the Two College Strategy. Don't shortchange yourself or your loved ones by trying to defy the odds. Stay in school, the same school, for four years.