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If there is a secret to setting community college students up for transfer success, Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) are well on their way to figuring it out. Why do we think this? Because data show us that when community college transfer students attend an HSI, they are more likely than other transfer students to persist and graduate. That’s the key finding from an Aspen Institute College Excellence Program analysis of six-year outcomes for enrollment, persistence and graduation at HSIs for students who transferred in 2014, based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

For context: HSIs are nonprofit institutions with a full-time undergraduate student enrollment that is at least 25 percent Latinx/Hispanic. Let’s look at their transfer numbers:

When it comes to increasing access to college and bachelor’s degree attainment, HSIs mean business. HSIs enrolled over a quarter of all entering community college transfer students, despite representing only 16 percent of new student enrollments in 2014 (these levels are consistent through 2017). And transfer students at HSIs are persisting and graduating at rates ahead of the national average. Specifically, transfer students at HSIs outpace the national average for graduation rates by six percentage points.

If other four-year institutions could match the success of HSIs in graduating transfer students, the nation would benefit from nearly 28,000 more bachelor’s degree graduates per year. That’s roughly the equivalent of the graduating classes of three large flagship public universities combined. That’s the power of improving transfer success.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, an organization dedicated to Latinx student success in higher education said, “Institutions that intentionally serve their students adapt their services to meet students where they are and facilitate progress to their goal of a college degree.” She added that this does not have to be unique to HSIs, “but data show that other institutions could learn from [HSIs] to better serve community college transfer students."

In the spirit of understanding what other institutions could learn from HSIs with strong transfer outcomes, I interviewed Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz from University of California, Merced.

Since 2017, UC Merced has increased community college transfer enrollment by 72 percent—bucking national trends during the pandemic. UC Merced also boasts an 89 percent four-year graduation rate for its transfer students. My conversation with Muñoz centered on an initiative called the Merced Promise, a partnership with Merced Community College that guarantees admission, specialized resources and a streamlined transfer process to UC Merced.

“Merced Promise emerged from deep conversations between the two campus leaderships to affirm our commitment to advance local students’ academic success and further remove any misperceptions surrounding the shared goals of four- and two-year institutions,” Muñoz said. He added that the two campuses saw mutual benefit in developing local talent that could support the economic growth of the San Joaquin Valley.

Plus: “Students, particularly in a tight-knit community where being close to home to help support their families is often a consideration, find they can still attain a culturally informed and industry-inspired world-class education,” said Muñoz.

I also asked Muñoz if he could share any insights with his fellow presidents and chancellors on how to better serve community college transfer students. He emphasized that this work requires purposeful connection and willingness to push beyond tradition, and shared several reflections, including:

  • Fulfill your institution’s mission by serving your community’s highest ambitions
  • Pick up the telephone and reach out to potential community college partners
  • Students need action now; don’t delay progress waiting for the “right time”

And, importantly, “Once you have successfully enrolled the transfer student at a four-year institution, create not just a climate of belonging, but a campus ecosystem that affirms the importance of their becoming everything they are capable of.”

UC Merced is just one example of transfer excellence among four-year HSIs. The University of Central Florida’s DirectConnect to UCF® and Florida International University’s Connect4Success are other well-documented and nationally recognized examples of innovative models that promote strong success for community college transfer students. These three examples demonstrate what is possible in transfer, and we hope that other institutions—HSIs or not—will follow their lead.

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