• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Conditional Acceptance, as Seen from Here

A different take on transfer.


August 26, 2018

I was struck, in reading the recent Hechinger Report piece on conditional acceptance, at how negatively it was portrayed. Within the frame of reference they used, it’s understandable, but I can attest that it looks very different from here.

In this context, conditional acceptance refers to selective universities or colleges allowing applicants to enroll, but not right away.  First, they have to spend some time at another institution, often with requirements around courseloads and GPA’s. If the applicant follows the plan and meets the requirements, she’s in. The piece profiles one student who applied to Cornell on the condition that she spend a year at Ithaca College first; she took the deal.

The practice is portrayed as secretive and somewhat ethically suspect. It’s a way for selective institutions to allow in some students who won’t “count” in their selectivity statistics. It can be a consolation prize for the marginally talented uberwealthy, or for filling in demographic holes in an entering class.  In the case of graduate programs with lots of international students -- less common than they used to be, but still -- they can be a way to admit students with talent but with limited proficiency in English.  Spend a year in the ESL program at a community college, the university might say, and if you do well, you’re in.

I can understand why people who are playing the exclusivity game might see conditional acceptance as a form of cheating.  But from a community college perspective, it looks more like a form of guaranteed transfer.

Community colleges catch flak when their credits only transfer piecemeal. That’s because many people don’t know, or haven’t thought through the implications that, the receiving institution makes the decisions around acceptance or denial. The CCRC has noted repeatedly that credit loss upon transfer is a major obstacle to on-time graduation. It costs time and money, and students are (rightly) insulted by it.  

But in the case of conditional acceptance, the student has both a path and a guarantee.  Follow the prescribed path and get the grades you need to get, and you’re in. That provides a powerful incentive to perform well, and assures the student that the effort will pay off.  That’s a much more powerful message than a simple rejection.

From an institutional perspective, students like these are on a mission, and students on a mission tend to finish what they start.  There’s a catch when the time in purgatory is less than the full associate degree: the student will count against our graduation rate, despite getting exactly what she came for. That’s a measurement error, and it has consequences, but it’s fixable in principle. It’s also fairly common now, except that now it tends to happen without guarantees. Guarantees make a difference.

I understand that many students offered conditional acceptance reject it, going instead to places that accept them outright.  That makes sense; they want what they want. It isn’t for everyone. But for the folks for whom it makes sense, I can see a lot of upside.  From here, it doesn’t look bad at all.

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Matt Reed

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