Washington's community-college students are transferring to four-year colleges and universities in record numbers, but increasingly they are turning to private, for-profit schools to earn their bachelor's degrees.

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Washington’s community-college students are transferring to four-year colleges and universities in record numbers, but increasingly they are turning to private, for-profit schools to earn their bachelor’s degrees.

The trend highlights the growing difficulty of transferring to a state-supported four-year college or university, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, which reported the results in a study released Monday.

The trend is also a concern because, according to the U.S. Department of Education, about a quarter of students at for-profit institutions default on their student loans within three years of starting to pay them — a number that suggests students at these schools pay a high price for an education that does not prepare them adequately for a career after college.

During a five-year period ending in summer 2010, the number of state students transferring from community and technical colleges to four-year colleges or universities to earn bachelor’s degrees grew 13 percent.

But the number transferring to public four-year schools in Washington increased only by about 1 percent, while the number transferring to private schools went up by almost 37 percent.

“I knew the percentage increase in the private sector was going up — I was surprised it was that much,” said Jan Ignash, deputy director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, who helped prepare the study.

“Our concern is capacity,” she said. “The students are here — we’ve been telling them to complete their education, and they’re doing it. Now we have to find a place for them.”

Washington’s public universities still educate the majority of transfer students; more than two-thirds of community-college students transfer into a public college or university to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

And the largest destination for transfer students, the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, took about 20 percent more transfers in 2009-10 than it did in 2005-06, according to annual statistics compiled by the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

But state budget cuts to higher education in the last three years have made it difficult for the state’s public universities to make room for all the students who want to enter, Ignash said.

Some of the growth at for-profit schools is driven by former military personnel who return from service and enroll in community colleges, then in private, for-profit schools to start to resume civilian careers, said David Prince, director of research and analysis for the SBCTC.

That is one of the reasons for the growth of the University of Phoenix, a national private, for-profit university that offers online courses and also has a campus in Tukwila. It’s now one of the state’s top transfer destinations.

In 2009-10, about 2,990 Washington community- and technical-college students transferred to the University of Phoenix. By comparison, 2,074 students transferred to the University of Washington’s Seattle campus.

Critics of for-profit institutions have raised concerns about the comparatively high price of tuition at these schools, and the debt burden their students take on.

Tuition and fees at Phoenix’s Tukwila campus total about $12,000. Tuition and fees at public four-year universities in Washington range from $6,000 to $8,700. Tuition is lower at public schools because state subsidies pick up part of the cost.

The report suggests the state’s public schools could provide more bachelor’s degrees by adding bachelor’s programs at two-year institutions and by offering degree-completion programs during flexible times and at locations convenient for working adults.

Compared with other states, Washington has an unusually extensive community-college system, with 34 community and technical colleges.

Almost half the students enrolled in college in this state go to a community or technical college. Nationally, the average is 34 percent.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com