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Millions of community college students are pursuing their higher education journeys right now. Many aspire to transfer to a four-year college or university. But if trends hold, just a fraction of them will make the jump—especially to a selective institution. Now that we can look at data from the fall 2017 cohort, we see just 3 percent of community college transfer students enrolled at selective schools.

That’s disappointing, considering tens of thousands of community college students have the credentials, skills and talents to excel at selective colleges and universities. The pandemic has likely led to additional missed opportunities, with community college transfer enrollment declining by 12.5 percent at highly selective institutions this past spring. This trend has major equity implications for these schools, given who enrolls in community colleges: recent data show that about 40 percent of community college students are Black or Latino, and nearly half are from lower-income backgrounds.

Through our work at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, we aim to broaden the horizon for what is possible for the incredible talent that resides in community colleges.

Over the past 21 years, the Cooke Foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship has supported hundreds of transfer students as they have thrived at these institutions—and we have supported thousands more through Community College Transfer Initiative grants to selective schools. This past spring, we awarded the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship to 100 high-achieving community college students, the largest group in the program’s history. These students are poised to realize their potential in part because we address the barrier of cost for transfer students—devoting up to $55,000 per year for each student toward tuition, living expenses, books and fees—and support their development through summer internship stipends, career advising and funding for travel to conferences.

Consider the stories of two Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholars. Francesca Raoelison, who transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to Brown University in 2018, has been featured in The Boston Globe and TEDx for founding Omena, a nonprofit working to stop cycles of emotional abuse in her home country of Madagascar. Matin Ghavamizadeh transferred from Los Angeles Valley College to the University of California, Berkeley, to double major in applied mathematics/electrical engineering and computer science. He went on to study probabilistic machine learning at the University of Cambridge and continues his research as a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Through the American Talent Initiative, which we at Aspen co-manage, we are working with presidents and senior leaders at the nation’s prominent schools to attract, enroll and support more community college transfers like Francesca and Matin.

Our organizations have partnered to make further progress toward this goal through the Transfer Scholars Network, which connects students at eight community colleges with admissions representatives from 13 highly selective private institutions offering generous financial aid. In its first year, the early results are promising: 372 high-achieving community college students have built relationships with four-year admissions leaders at these schools—and are receiving the guidance and supports to apply as transfers and ultimately enroll.

Admitting more community college transfers is just the first step: Selective schools must transform the transfer student experience to ensure that those admitted can thrive.

Here are three important steps for selective institutions to consider:

  • Partnerships with community colleges. Smaller selective schools may not be able to establish robust pipelines with community colleges the same way their larger, more access-oriented counterparts can. However, they can build meaningful relationships in other ways. For example, presidents at selective institutions can reach out to their community college peers to learn more about each other’s students, break ground on partnerships between their faculty to co-teach classes and broker relationships between admissions and key community college advisers and mentors.
  • Dedicated financial aid and affordability for transfers. With two-thirds of transfer students coming from lower-income backgrounds, selective schools are well positioned to ensure transfers access an affordable four-year education paired with generous financial aid. Four-year schools can reinforce a message of affordability across recruitment and outreach efforts, dispelling notions that their institutions are out of reach. Alongside sustained investments in financial aid and supplemental funding for the specific needs for transfer students (like housing and childcare), selective schools can accept more community college credits to further reduce the overall cost of attendance.
  • Focus on transfer students’ sense of belonging. With transfers representing a small segment of the student body, selective schools must be thoughtful about how they foster a sense of inclusion and belonging. Supporting dedicated transfer initiatives like family housing, transfer centers and transfer personnel goes a long way to help students see how they would fit in and thrive. By elevating leadership opportunities and access to high-impact experiences, selective schools can signal to transfers they are valued members of the campus community.

The Transfer Playbook points to presidential leadership as a key factor in ensuring transfer student success. This holds true for selective institutions. Presidential commitment can help clear the way for the financial investment, addition of human capital, adjustments to academic and student life policies and culture change needed for a strong transfer student experience. When that happens, we see community college transfer students like Francesca and Matin primed to succeed—and enrich campuses in the process.

Alan Royal is the director of outreach and partnerships with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Benjamin Fresquez is a senior program manager at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. For more information about the Cooke Transfer Scholarship and the application process, launching in October, click here.

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