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Every year, more than 100,000 community college students transfer to private four-year universities. That’s only about a third of those who started community college in the cohort two years earlier. And just 4,000 of those students enroll in the most selective private universities. We think that number could be substantially higher.

Selective colleges that are hesitant to commit to a transfer program can learn from Amherst College in Massachusetts, which is consistently ranked as one of America’s top liberal arts colleges. Amherst enrolls 10 to 15 community college transfer students a year (out of about 495 new students). It’s a small program but a big commitment to transfers.

The background: in 2010, Amherst was reaching the end of a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant designed to lay the foundation for a community college transfer program. Despite the challenges of the Great Recession, the campus decided to sustain their commitment.

To explain Amherst’s commitment, Associate Dean of Admission Alexandra Hurd spoke with the American Talent Initiative, which works to expand access for low- and moderate-income students to colleges with the highest graduation rates.

Q: How did Amherst become a transfer-friendly college?

A: This starts with President Biddy Martin, Hurd said: “President Martin has really pushed us past the point of representation and to a conversation on inclusion.” She added that the president hosts transfer students for lunches and tea at her house. “She wants to hear what their experiences are and how they are navigating the campus.”

The Board of Trustees, faculty and staff embody Martin’s commitment to transfer. “They’re all committed to learning more about the transfer population, specifically our community college and student veteran initiatives,” Hurd said.

Q: You mentioned faculty. What role do Amherst faculty play in the transfer culture?

A: The faculty recognize that community college students bring a strong work ethic and different perspectives to classroom discussions, Hurd said. As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant was ending, “faculty very much supported the program and voiced how much they value having these students in their classrooms and as part of the community,” Hurd said. “These voices were incredibly influential.”

Q: What strategies have led to Amherst’s success in enrolling community college students?

A: Amherst found that recruiting and enrolling these students requires a different approach than traditional candidates, Hurd said. To honor the transfer student experience means to acknowledge the work that student has put in before reaching your institution. Amherst does this in three main ways: training counselors to think from the transfer student experience, clearly sharing admission and financial aid information, and being transparent and flexible about credit transfer.

Q: How does Amherst approach credit transfer?

A: At the point of admissions, students receive an evaluation of their credits that clearly states which courses will transfer, as well as the graduation date, class year and financial aid package. Because Amherst has no general education requirements or core curriculum, most liberal arts credits will apply toward students’ bachelor’s degrees. This is a significant advantage for transfers. (Across the country, transfer students too often find that credits accumulated at community college don’t apply to bachelor’s degrees, leading to more time and money spent at a four-year institution.)

Q: What does Amherst’s support for community college transfer students look like?

A: In addition to robust financial aid that covers tuition and nontuition costs, Amherst provides a sense of community from day one. Students join a cohort of community college transfer students who meet each other through orientations and events like barbecues and visits to the campus farm. They have access to the Class & Access Resource Center, which supports first-generation, low-income, transfer and veteran students. The center hosts a welcome dinner and alumni panels and connects students with jobs and grad school opportunities.

Q: For colleges that might be newer to transfer, what can you say about investments you made to thoughtfully support transfer students?

A: Many transfer students’ needs are like the needs of other students that Amherst hopes to enroll to create an intentionally diverse and inclusive campus community, Hurd said. These include counseling, the academic advising hub, the writing center, wellness programs, peer advising, the career center and intensive faculty advising. Designing a campus that’s transfer-friendly does not require reinventing programs but rather expanding or slightly revising programs to meet the needs and interests of transfer students.

Hurd stressed the importance of providing a dedicated space for community college transfer students to discuss their shared experiences. By hearing from students directly, administrators and faculty can think creatively about addressing transfer students’ concerns.

Yazmin Padilla is a program associate within the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, providing support to the American Talent Initiative.

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