Students are often advised to start their post-secondary education at community college before transferring to a four-year Bachelor’s program, but experts say that’s a huge mistake.

According to a new report by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), fewer than half of students who go this route graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within six years.

In fact, only 16% of community college students ever complete a four-year degree program.

When they begin their journey at community college, “Students often believe their chances of success are much greater than they are—that’s terribly unfortunate,” according to Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

Community colleges generally lead to associate degrees, certificates, or diplomas—programs designed to prepare graduates for the workforce. However, in America, these institutions are often seen as an affordable stepping stone to four-year degree programs at universities.

That’s why community colleges were established in the first place, according to The League for Innovation in the Community College, a nonprofit organization.

This expectation is also baked into the minds of students. The Columbia University study cited surveys showing that nearly 80% of community college goers plan to transition to a Bachelor’s degree at some point.

Unfortunately, “Transfer outcomes have stagnated or show little improvement in most states,” the study said.

“Too many students are failed by policies and practices that dictate whether and how effectively students transfer from community colleges to universities, particularly students from historically underserved groups,” said Tatiana Velasco, lead author at CCRC.

The research demonstrates “how current transfer pathways are ineffective for most students and not improving fast enough to deliver the Bachelor’s degrees most college students aim to achieve,” according to Tania LaViolet, director of research and innovation at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

While community college-goers don’t always get what they want, those who avoid university end up saving a lot of money on tuition.

Community college debt is much smaller

According to the Community College Review, community college graduates leave school with just over $13,000 in student debt.

By comparison, college and university grads have an average loan balance of around $40,500.

In other words, community college grads have 68% less student loan debt than those who complete standard four-year Bachelor’s degrees.

Although Bachelor’s degree holders have higher lifetime earnings, it’s not as clear-cut as it used to be.

Research from Georgetown University found that associate’s degree holders earn between $1.4 million and $2.9 million over their lifetime, compared to $1.9 million and $4.1 million for Bachelor’s degree recipients.

Experts say more students are opting for shorter programs to save money and receive practical, hands-on training that can help them land a job.

“Students have been increasingly opting for shorter-term degrees and more vocational programs and vocational certificates,” said Doug Shapiro, an executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse.

Shapiro’s organization found that enrollments in associate programs increased by 3.6% this past fall, compared to just 0.9% for Bachelor’s programs.

While all grads are entering a tougher labor market, those who completed an expensive four-year degree are feeling the most pressure.

Entering a tougher labor market

With employment prospects dimming somewhat, landing a lucrative job after completing a Bachelor’s degree is far from a slam dunk.

According to a new survey by online magazine, nearly four out of ten employers avoid hiring recent grads in favor of older employees. Nearly 60% said recent grads are unprepared for the workforce.

“When employers look at their options to hire, they're going to go for people who are ready to come in on day one and get started, who know how to make eye contact,” said Julie Bauke, founder and career strategist at the Bauke Group.

According to The Washington Post, recent grads have found it harder to land jobs since the pandemic. Unemployment among new grads is nearly one point higher than the national average.

“Recent college graduates are very sensitive to the state of the labor market,” Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, told the Post. “There’s been some softening in hiring, and young people in general are the first to feel it.”