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More than 130 four-year colleges and universities with the nation’s highest graduation rates have come together as members of the American Talent Initiative, committing to a common goal: to enroll, support and graduate 50,000 additional students from low- and moderate-income households by 2025. ATI members run the gamut, from the entire Ivy League and flagship publics to regional comprehensive universities and a variety of private liberal arts colleges. Community college transfer has emerged as a key strategy to increase access, success and equity across members of all stripes, including at the most selective private colleges in the nation.

The data underscore the opportunity for these schools. Our research shows that just 3 percent of the fall 2017 transfer cohort enrolled at selective colleges and universities. And it is not for a lack of qualified students: at least 50,000 high-achieving lower-income community college students do not transfer every year. Selective private institutions can bridge the gap through friendlier credit transfer policies, more welcoming and supportive campus cultures, and investments in need-based aid. One strategy to begin with: engaging more community college students through robust and tailored outreach.

While admissions offices can rely on a national network of more than 1,500 community-based organizations to help increase access for lower-income high school students, the infrastructure is much more limited for community college transfer students. Just a handful of those organizations are expressly devoted to expanding opportunity for community college transfers. Even fewer focus on access to selective colleges and universities. The bottom line: community college transfer students would benefit from more CBOs dedicated to their success.

That’s why, in 2019, through ATI, our team at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program partnered with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to develop a solution. More than 20 four-year and community college representatives convened to design a better system for these high-achieving students. Three years later, we are excited to announce the Transfer Scholars Network. Through TSN, community college faculty, advisers and other staff nominate highly talented lower-income students to connect with an exclusive network of senior admissions professionals at leading private colleges, receiving dedicated support to navigate a complex application process.

We piloted the TSN model over 18 months, connecting 372 students from eight community colleges to senior admissions leaders at 13 highly selective, high-graduation four-year colleges, all members of ATI. We are reaching students historically excluded from selective four-year institutions: 71 percent of transfer scholars are students of color and nearly three-fourths have family incomes less than $50,000. Nearly all of the participating students hold at least a 3.5 GPA. They also displayed a diversity of experiences, leadership and perspectives that any campus would be lucky to have in and outside their classrooms.

The preliminary results from the pilot are in: more than a third of the 372 TSN students applied to institutions in the network. Early insights show that at least two-thirds of those who received offers of admission enrolled at partner colleges, outpacing an average yield of 52 percent. On top of these early signs of promise, additional TSN students have shared they enrolled at other high-graduation-rate colleges across the country. For those who did not apply to a TSN school, many are early in their community college journeys. They can continue to work with admissions leaders in the network to put together a strong application in the coming years.

We are encouraged by the pilot’s initial findings, but if we want to see more transfers succeed at the nation’s leading private four-year institutions, the field needs:

  • More community colleges across the country—whether through TSN or other means—to ensure their top talent knows the full extent of higher education opportunity available to them
  • More highly selective private four-year colleges to open their doors to community college transfers and build a campus culture that ensures they thrive academically and socially.
  • More community-based organizations to dedicate and tailor programming that enables more students to enter and succeed in the transfer pipeline.

To support those efforts, we want to share what worked for TSN students:

  • Deepen collaboration among community colleges and four-year institutions. Too often, four-year institutions engage community college students sporadically through occasional webinars and information sessions. Prospective transfers do not know the range of institutions they could afford and access. The 13 four-year TSN partners worked together to coordinate workshops and information sessions so students could learn about their transfer cultures, engage with senior leaders and connect with transfer alumni. In the process, they broadened students’ postsecondary horizons, positioning them to see TSN four-year partner campuses as realistic destinations. And as a result, transfer scholars were among the first from their institutions to attend schools like Pomona College, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Make the most of virtual engagement. Through the pandemic, we learned webinars and virtual workshops present an opportunity to reach more students from historically marginalized communities, many of whom may not have the time or resources for campus visits. Four-year institutions can also co-host counselor information sessions, using a single event to highlight their various institutions. These options are more suitable for prospective transfers who are more likely to have to juggle work, life and academic responsibilities.
  • Prioritize proactive outreach. Even though we know many transfers could thrive at selective four-year institutions, many do not consider them, assuming they are unaffordable or not transfer-friendly. To combat those misperceptions, senior leaders and presidents at TSN community colleges sent personalized nomination letters to eligible students, incorporating research from the University of Michigan’s successful High Achieving Involved Leader programs. They drew on their credibility and standing to underscore the message that students could excel at TSN schools—and afford them.

Through TSN, we hope to contribute to a future in which every top college in the nation creates a campus community where transfer students are welcomed and can thrive. Our ultimate vision is for every community college student in the nation to see just how far their talents can lead them. Whether through the Transfer Scholars Network, your institution or another organization, we hope you’ll join us in making that vision a reality.

Tania LaViolet is the director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program’s bachelor’s attainment portfolio and co-lead of the American Talent Initiative. Benjamin Fresquez and Adam Rabinowitz are senior managers at Aspen CEP, co-leading the Transfer Scholars Network.

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