Bertha Flores, a 23-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, is the first in her family to attend college. Last year, she graduated with an associate degree from an honors program at Montgomery College, in suburban Maryland. She is now a rising senior at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, studying policy management; a tireless volunteer in the small town of Carlisle; and a student member of the college's Commission for Women . She hopes for a career in nonprofit work to help more Hispanic students go to college.
“I believe that the record I’ve built so far speaks for itself,” Flores said. “If someone wants to argue that students who go to community college will have difficulty transitioning to a college like this or won’t be able to catch up to the rest of the students, that’s just not true. I’ve excelled … and it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Flores is part of the second cohort of students to arrive at Dickinson as part of a new comprehensive transfer partnership  with honors programs at five community colleges in Pennsylvania and Maryland. And with its first cohort of six transfer students set to graduate from Dickinson this weekend — with an average grade-point average of 3.5 — and second cohort of six rising seniors already making their presence felt on the campus, the partnership is showing early signs of success. Only one of 13 students who have enrolled at Dickinson through the partnership is no longer still enrolled — officials say “for personal reasons.”
Students like Flores and her classmate, Darrell Pacheco, a 21-year-old rising senior who transferred from Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania, are disproving critics who wonder if community college transfer students can excel at selective liberal arts colleges or if their experience will somehow be “watered down” by their having arrived as juniors.
“I sometimes tell students who’ve been here from the beginning, ‘You don’t know how great you have it,’” said Pacheco, who is studying political science, an active member of the African-American Society and vice president of the Class of 2012. “Everything you have here is a networking tool…. I don’t just let it pass me by. I came to Dickinson to take advantage of it.”
The number of high school graduates in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states is projected to decline  in the years ahead, so Dickinson, like many tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges in the region, is looking for new ways to recruit students. The partnership is part of Dickinson's efforts to boost its community college transfer population. While the transfer numbers here are small compared to those at regional public universities that have long recruited community college graduates, this strategy is a notable shift at a residential liberal arts college.
Stephanie Balmer, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, said the college would like to trim the size of its first-year class from 600 students to 575 students over time but maintain "optimum net tuition revenue." The idea is that, eventually, this new transfer partnership will expand interest in Dickinson from those in the community college sector, beyond those initial partner institutions and their honors programs. Balmer argued that, with some further balancing of incoming tuition revenue and spending on student aid, the partnership will turn Dickinson into a destination for more community college students, helping to attract not only those in need but also those who can pay for a substantial part of their education.
“Over time, we’d like to develop a culture of partnerships with community colleges,” said Balmer, who called encouraging transfer a “safeguard” against any future declines in the number of high school applicants. “We expect a mid-term and long-term payoff. Being early in the market here, we are certainly making significant investments in this program. That’s in large part why we have only five partner community colleges; we want to meet the full need of students who apply.”
Those honors students who earn an associate degree with at least a 3.25 GPA and are accepted to Dickinson are given merit scholarships worth $5,000 to $15,000 over two years, in addition to any need-based aid for which they are eligible. A full year at Dickinson is around $54,000, including room, board and other expenses. Community college honors students who express an early enough interest in Dickinson also benefit from specialized advising before transferring to help ease the process.
Dickinson officials also hope the partnership will bring more diversity to a student body that is majority female and predominantly white; only a small percentage of students are eligible for Pell Grants. Diversity, however does not come easily. Of the 12 transfer students in the two cohorts, two-thirds are white, half are female and one-sixth are Pell-eligible. Three are international students.
Sophia DeMasi, director of the honors program at Montgomery County Community College, said about half of the students in her program transfer to public universities in Pennsylvania even though there are numerous private liberal arts colleges nearby in the Lehigh Valley. She says that Dickinson was not high in the consciousness of students at her institutions as a transfer destination prior to this partnership; even now, she said, there are difficulties in convincing some students to attend a small liberal arts college, particularly students from diverse backgrounds.
“Being a minority in what are essentially small towns and not very diverse communities is a really difficult thing to negotiate,” DeMasi said. “I’ve had this happen a number of times with students choosing to attend an institution like that. Just this year, I had a Hispanic student, who was one of our best students, who chose not to attend [another small liberal arts college] because a friend of his told him it was a hostile environment. One of the Dickinson people who’ve been accepted is still on the fence ... and is strongly considering another school instead, for a similar reason.”
DeMasi said she thinks the partnership could benefit from students from diverse backgrounds being shown by institutions like Dickinson the “kind of student support services and opportunities that they have.” Flores and Pacheco acknowledge they had brief periods of difficulty in adjusting to academic and social norms in their first semesters at Dickinson, but by and large they reject the notion that the change was too difficult to manage.
Dickinson officials argue that the transfer students are changing Dickinson as much as, if not more than, it is changing them. Norm Jones, assistant to the president, noted that three of the six students in the 2012 cohort will serve as resident advisers next year; the selection process for these positions, he said, is highly competitive. He also noted that many, like Pacheco, are assuming student leadership positions immediately upon arriving on campus. Jones said these transfer students are helping the institution “remove any perceived barriers” that may be hindering them that those native to Dickinson may not have noticed.
Pacheco, for example, has already left his mark on student governance at Dickinson. This year, he introduced and helped the student government pass its own “non-discrimination” policy mandating that students cannot be discriminated against “based on their admission status.” Pacheco said he was thinking about the transfer students of the future when pushing for this policy.
“I didn’t have any problems or feel judged because I was a transfer,” Pacheco said of his running for student office. “It’s better to be proactive than reactive, though. I just wanted to make sure things are in place for that next cohort, to ensure they have as smooth a transition as I had.”