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The news last week that Princeton University had admitted its first transfer students since 1990 was something of a Rorschach test in the world of admissions. Some were thrilled to hear that one of the nation's most elite universities had ended its ban on transfer admissions. And the 13 students admitted illustrated why many colleges have long valued transfer programs for bringing all kinds of student experience and diversity into four-year campuses.
Of those admitted (from the 1,429 who applied), eight identify as people of color, including biracial and multiracial students. Eight have served in or are still serving in the military. Eight studied at community colleges. And while there had been some speculation that Princeton would use the new transfer option to boost athletic teams, since sports-crazed alumni have long argued that Princeton should join other colleges in admitting athletes who've proven themselves elsewhere, none of those admitted are recruited athletes.
But to others in the admissions world, the story was that an institution like Princeton had chosen to exclude transfer applicants for so long. They asked why Princeton was being praised for doing what other institutions -- public and private -- have done for decades. (Among the most elite private colleges, a ban like Princeton's may be rare, but most of these institutions admit relatively small numbers of transfer applicants.)
Perhaps advocates for transfer admissions can be forgiven for feeling that their role isn't appreciated these days. In several public comments in the last two months, President Trump has said that community colleges should offer only vocational programs (and change their names to reflect his view of their mission). Given that states such as Florida and California depend on community colleges to provide the first two years of college education for many, the comments frustrated many who work on community colleges and at four-year institutions that rely on them for transfer students.
Historically, community college transfers have been most commonly sought by and encouraged to enroll at nearby public institutions. But these days, many private colleges (typically those less competitive than Princeton) are creating articulation agreements with community colleges. This month's news articles about graduations from four-year institutions include reference to those who started at community colleges. Inside Higher Ed's most recent survey of admissions directors found that, among those at four-year colleges, 63 percent at public institutions and 85 percent at private institutions said they were planning to increase efforts to recruit transfer students in the next year.
But do four-year institutions know enough about the potential transfer students from community colleges?
Data released last week at the Common Application annual meeting suggested that many community college transfers may be a new type of "stealth applicant," doing research on where to apply without contacting the four-year institutions they are considering.
Gil Rogers of the National Research Center for College & University Admissions presented findings of a survey of 990 people who, when surveyed in high school, said they planned to attend a community college. Following them three years later, NRCCUA found that attending community college was generally part of a strategy to move on to a four-year institution.
But the students do not fit neatly into a single pattern, and their responses to questions, Rogers said, suggest that colleges need to think carefully about their strategies for recruiting transfer applicants. (One caution from Rogers is that the survey is of one part of the community college population, those who enroll fairly soon after high school, and those who enroll at community colleges later in life may have different attitudes.)
The respondents' demographics and academic records suggest that they should be desirable admits for many colleges. More than two-thirds of them have in the last three years completed at least one year's worth of college credits, and 72 percent have a grade point average of at least 3.0. More than a quarter started at a four-year college and then left it for a community college. And the students are diverse, with 59 percent of them first generation and 43 percent from minority groups.
Only a minority of these students (less than 20 percent) say they enrolled at a community college because an associate degree was their final educational goal. Most plan to transfer. The decision to enroll is based in large part on lower costs to students and proximity to home, but based on a series of questions asked of these students, NRCCUA breaks them into four categories: the Cost Saver (38 percent), the Local Explorer (10 percent), the Academic Improver (37 percent) and the Late Bloomer (15 percent). Recruitment strategies of four-year colleges may need to be varied to reach these different groups.
A majority across all groups said they planned to transfer to a four-year institution, but not necessarily only after finishing a program. More than 75 percent said they started considering transfer options before the end of their first year at a community college.
In terms of factors when considering a four-year institution, the top factor the students identified was cost, but that was followed not far behind by ability to transfer credits. A majority of these students said they had some degree of worry about whether their credits (or most of them) would transfer.
Despite these concerns, most would-be transfer students do not cast a very wide net in looking for potential four-year institutions. More than 80 percent said that they would apply to four or fewer institutions. Public four-year institutions in their states are the most likely to be at the top of the list, they said.
Nearly half do not plan to or are unsure if they want to reach out to admissions offices at potential institutions, the survey found, making them a new kind of "stealth applicant." Rogers said this that suggested colleges that want to be on the short lists of institutions to which most potential transfers will apply need to highlight qualities that would appeal to the students.
Quality information about costs and career options for various programs can go a long way, Rogers said. And he pointed to another finding that suggests that colleges, just by thinking about the transfer process and improving it, may gain students. Only one in four students surveyed said that they thought the transfer process would be easy.