Every year, more than 100 talented students enter the honors program at San Jacinto College, a community college in Houston serving nearly 30,000 students, with plans to transfer to highly selective four-year institutions like nearby Rice University. Nearly all those students aspire to transfer and complete a four-year degree. However, too many of them -- and their peers across the country -- feel a four-year degree is out of reach.
Year after year, this misperception stalls 50,000 high-achieving community college students across the country from transferring to a four-year college. At the nation’s selective private institutions, community college transfers make up fewer than one in every 1,000 students, even though they are just as likely to excel academically and graduate as their peers who entered as freshmen.
As senior leaders from San Jacinto and Yale University, we know that community college transfer students offer diverse perspectives that enrich discussions in the classroom and across campus. Sadly, very few feel they can make the leap to apply to transfer programs at colleges like Yale.
Community colleges and high-graduation-rate, selective four-year institutions can address this challenge by encouraging deeper relationships among dedicated staff members who specialize in the transfer application process. Too often, institutions like San Jacinto and Yale coordinate ad hoc events like counselor visits and information sessions. To strengthen this pipeline, community colleges must identify prospective transfer students who can thrive at a four-year college. And four-year colleges must be able to connect those students to trusted staff and students on their campuses.
We can start by keeping in mind that community colleges and highly selective institutions aren’t that different. We share the crucial goals to enroll, support and graduate people who can thrive in the workforce and support the national recovery. That joint commitment drove us to launch the Transfer Scholars Network alongside the American Talent Initiative and advance those goals. Here are three strategies we can pursue -- together -- to make progress.
Put a Priority on Outreach -- Early and Often
The pandemic has challenged colleges to reimagine how to support and recruit transfer students. Virtual sessions have proven to be a powerful way to connect across distance. We need to offer more of them to a broader network of community colleges, and at more flexible times for students with nontraditional schedules. Four-year institutions then can focus on prospective transfer students recommended by community college partners, offering access to transfer-focused materials and peers and faculty with aligned academic interests. These students are well positioned to understand what the college transition involves and feel confident when applying. Early outreach also sends a loud clear message: selective four-year institutions are committed to their success.
Create a Transfer Support Network
Prospective transfer students rely on a vast support network at their community college to navigate their academic and professional next steps, including academic affairs, veterans’ services and student success staff. Four-year institutions should tap into that network early to ensure all community college staff members know how to advise and direct aspiring transfer students. They should also work with trusted alumni from partner community colleges. These “near-peer” advisers provide invaluable insights and reinforce the message that institutions like Yale can be affordable and accessible.
Embrace Collaboration Over Competition
For decades, selective four-year colleges vied for the same pool of students at college fairs and on-campus sessions. The pandemic spurred innovation: Yale joined Amherst College, Williams College, Pomona College and Princeton University to host virtual counselor workshops and information sessions. We used these single touch points to highlight various colleges and collectively reinforce the importance of transfer. Community colleges can build on this shared commitment to expand students’ transfer horizons. San Jacinto established articulation agreements with a broad network of institutions and built a dedicated transfer webpage with links to diverse institutions, adviser schedules and scholarships. By elevating selective colleges within these sites, we expand our students’ horizons; we make transferring feel more feasible.
Repairing the crack in the transfer talent pipeline is now a national imperative. To fill good jobs that are available now and in the coming years, we need more students like those at San Jacinto’s honors program to earn their bachelor’s degrees. Through a whole-of-higher-education effort, we can fix the leak and expand the pipeline to ensure at least 50,000 additional talented students each year can realize their promise.
Rebecca Goosen is associate vice chancellor for student success transitions at San Jacinto College, in Houston, a 2021 Aspen Prize finalist. Marisa Kogan and Patricia Wei are associate directors of undergraduate admission at Yale University, respectively overseeing transfer-related efforts and related initiatives like the Eli Whitney Scholars Program.