• Beyond Transfer

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Navigating the Path From Community College to Prestigious Private University

Tips from a transfer student turned university president.

 

June 16, 2022
 
 

Private four-year colleges are increasingly looking to the community college transfer pipeline to broaden access and diversify the student body. For President Carol L. Folt, it’s personal. As a community college transfer student, she discovered a lifelong passion for biology, then went on to assume top leadership positions and presidencies at three campuses: Dartmouth College; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and now the University of Southern California.

For the second of two interviews focused on increasing community college transfer to private four-year institutions, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program asked Folt about her approach to building transfer pathways, promoting a sense of belonging on campus and ensuring these students’ success. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Aspen Institute: Tell us about your own community college transfer story. What motivated you to transfer to the University of California, Santa Barbara?

Carol Folt: Although I dropped out of the Ohio State University before completing my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to pursue a four-year education. My family didn’t have the money to support that dream, so I had to work my way through school. I decided to move to California, where I knew I could work full-time while getting a great education.

I figured I would start by enrolling at a community college in Santa Barbara and waitressing at a restaurant on the pier there. I was lucky; I found my way from community college to UC Santa Barbara, earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees without any loans and discovering my love for the environment along the way. Thinking back on how I stumbled on this path, I’m amazed I was able to transfer. That’s why I place such an emphasis on ensuring students have what they need those first few semesters to access and adjust to USC. If no one encourages community college students to consider four-year colleges—if no one paves the way for them—we lose out on an incredibly talented group of students from diverse backgrounds.

Q: How does your transfer story inform your approach to the university presidency?

A: As a college president, you draw on all your experiences. For me, that includes dropping out of college and moving across the country, working while attending community college and making a career at public and private institutions. I consider my experience as a community college transfer student to be my most formative because I did it on my own.

When I shared this at a recent meeting of Association of American Universities presidents, many were surprised to learn my transfer story. Just as surprisingly, several presidents came up after and shared their own transfer journeys. Among the leadership of colleges across the country, transfer students are better represented than we think.

It is up to us as leaders of four-year colleges and universities to set the tone, emphasizing the many contributions these students offer to our campuses. We need to raise awareness about barriers to pave the way for reforms that help transfer students follow an easy transfer process, save money, reduce debt and build belonging.

 

Q: What messages do you share with fellow presidents and senior leaders when setting the tone for community college transfer?

A: We need to treat community college transfer like the merit program it is. Transfer students don’t just represent some of our highest-achieving students, they also carry an incredible suite of experiences. When presidents view community college like a merit program, our perspective shifts. We start to see community college for the ways it can help broaden and diversify our student body. At USC, this framing has led us to explore exciting new initiatives like direct promise programs that provide a guaranteed pathway to admission and pipelines for transfer students interested in high-demand technology fields.

Sadly, too few community college students realize their potential on prestigious campuses. According to a recent report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, only about 5 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive four-year schools started at community colleges. At USC, we’re proud that transfer students make up approximately 13 percent of our undergraduate population. Time and time again, they show us they excel in the classroom, thrive in student leadership positions and bring ferocious determination to everything they do. Our campus communities benefit from the multitude of backgrounds and perspectives they bring.

Q: How can four-year private institutions expand the pipeline for community college transfer students?

A: I’d start by elevating transfer as an option early. At USC, we work with the California Advising Corps at high schools across the state to amplify a message: students do not have to start at USC to get a four-year degree from USC. We recognize they may want to launch at community college as they navigate financial, professional or personal circumstances—then transfer to us. We emphasize they can earn bachelor’s degrees right alongside their first-year, full-time peers. And we put a lot of work into updating articulation agreements with community colleges across California so that these students see a clear path to a bachelor’s degree.

Also, four-year institutions must share the responsibility for transfer student success with their community college counterparts. That means four-year colleges should be visible as early as possible, providing opportunities for community college students to explore campus life, connect with faculty and feel they belong. At both institutions, staff and faculty should engage in regular check-ins, coordinating the financial, academic and social-emotional supports that students need to thrive.

 

Q: How do you ensure a smooth transition for community college transfer students to your campus?

A: You need to consider how your campus culture supports transfer students’ unique life experiences, not just those of first-year, full-time residential students. Push yourselves to develop financial, experiential and academic resources in several languages that address the needs of working adults and students from a variety of backgrounds, such as veterans and DACA students. That may mean rethinking the traditional on-campus experience; instead, highlight hybrid courses, transfer student centers and supports for commuters.

And you must make transfer pride part of the culture. When I arrived at USC, transfer students told me they needed space to orient and adjust to our campus culture. We listened. We expanded transfer student orientations so they get the same full-court press as everyone else. We ensure they have early and frequent opportunities to participate in a range of student organizations and embed into our culture. I was so proud when our students created roles specifically designated for transfers in student government, ensuring all transfer students have supports to hit the ground running.

Of course, this goes beyond the president. It’s important for senior leaders, staff and faculty to reinforce to transfers that they’ll succeed, that they’ll transform our campus. I can’t overstate the importance of adopting this mind-set—and making sure programming backs it up. At USC, we are investing in a transfer center filled with staff, tutors and peers sharing the impact these students have on our campus. And at UNC, we ensured community college students in the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program recognized their potential from day one, receiving support and encouragement from dedicated advisers, staff and faculty along with early opportunities to be a part of the campus culture.

Our efforts have paid off: community college transfers today are a vital part of USC and graduate at the same rate—92 percent—as the rest of our students.

Q: Can you close by explaining how your experience affects USC’s transfer culture?

A: When I returned to California in 2019 to become USC’s president, I realized I had come full circle from my transfer experience. USC has one of the largest transfer student communities of a big private research university. Right away, I shared my story with the entire campus. I continue to put a priority on making the transfer experience as seamless as possible. I want my fellow transfers to know they are incredibly talented. While I didn’t feel a stigma as a transfer student, I saw others experience that stigma throughout my higher education career. I am determined to ensure no one feels it and am grateful that transfer students on campus often come up to me and proudly share their stories. I urge my fellow presidents at four-year, private universities to do what we do here at USC—celebrate these students, their contributions, their accomplishments.


Carol Folt is president of the University of Southern California, a member of the American Talent Initiative. For more insight on how to support community college transfers at four-year private institutions, you can read the first interview in this two-part series, with Omar Moussa Pasha, a community college transfer graduate who thrived at Rice University on his way to attending medical school this fall.

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