03/08/2012 09:42 am ET Updated May 08, 2012

Clearinghouse Five

Well, we'll be damned -- turns out President Obama "wants to remake you in his image," or so Rick Santorum preached from his bully pulpit last weekend in Michigan. Santorum, who wields degrees from three institutions, called Obama a "snob" for wanting more students in this country to attend college. Santorum instead read from the book of job-creation, but he could have noted Obama's lectures on education have highlighted vocational and non-four-year programs.

On February 28 the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released "Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Post-secondary Institutions," a study detailing the academic trajectory of 2.8 million students who in 2006 started school at the post-secondary level. Contra to standard reports on transfers in and out of college, this study followed the students themselves and not the institutions which housed them. This method avoids the statistical setback in which transfer students are marked as having dropped out from their initial school, but are not subsequently counted in the graduation rates of those institutions where they finish.

A third of the students transferred before picking up their first degree, according to the study. Thirty-seven percent transferred in their second year, and the most popular transfer destination was two-year community colleges for all students except those who began in one originally. The study also compared transfer rates across full- and part-time students, finding them nearly identical.

Any study about transferring asks: Where do go from here? For policymakers, the Clearinghouse data adds weight to education discussions happening on a national scale. Coupled with numbers from the decade-long Delta Project, which showed 43 percent of students attend community college, it is evident more resources ought to be dedicated to improving our community colleges, or learning from them.

But the study does not answer all the questions it sets out for itself, and errs in some places. For instance, the research tracked the flow of students before they obtained their first degree, and so excluded those who took an associate's before seeking a bachelor's. Moreover, the study labels a "reverse transfer" when a student excuses himself from a four-year school to go to a two-year college. This nomenclature had no effect on the data, but is evidence of a community college stigma which says student movement should go in one direction.

What the Clearinghouse data tells us is that community colleges are common enough, and it is important for the rest of us to see them as legitimate. Many circumstances lead to a student's movement, and, however you slice pie charts, as University students we should not use these studies to validate or inform our decisions one way or the other. These reports drew no conclusions about community colleges -- and nor should we; rather, we ought only to grade the merits of those individuals inside them. No study can point to or graph why a student might transfer, because only we can draw the best fit.