The need for improved transfer pathways between community colleges and four-year institutions, especially at institutions with the highest graduation rates and the most resources, is well documented. Despite comprising nearly half of all students who earn a bachelor’s degree, community college transfer students make up only 10 percent of students at highly competitive institutions, and just 5 percent of students at the most competitive institutions. These disparities are more pronounced at private institutions than public institutions, partly due to transfer-friendly state policies and the preferences of prospective college students to attend college near their home -- preferences likely intensified by the financial and health impacts of COVID-19.
This imbalance persists despite the fact that, nationally, the pool of talented community college students is vast. Each year, more than 100,000 community college students earn induction into Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community college students with grade point averages above 3.5. And, each year, more than 50,000 lower-income community college students nationwide do not transfer despite having a 3.5 GPA or higher; 15,000 of these students have a 3.7 GPA or higher.
Our country’s most selective four-year institutions invest significant resources to recruit talented high school students from across the country. But many institutions are overlooking a talented and diverse pool of students in their own backyard: transfer students from local community colleges. In a recently published brief, we explore the supply of qualified community college students located locally, students we call “transfer-ready.” Specifically, we focused our analyses on private institutions with graduation rates consistently above 70 percent, as those are the institutions where the disparities in community college transfer enrollment are most pronounced. Our key findings are outlined below:
- The supply of transfer students from local community colleges is plentiful. Of the 251 private institutions in our analyses, 244 have at least 500 transfer-ready community college students enrolled within a 50-mile radius, and 137 have at least 5,000 transfer-ready students enrolled nearby. For all but 15 of these 251 institutions, the pool of transfer-ready students comprises at least 30 percent of current incoming enrollment.
- The extent of the supply depends on the population density of the region. Private high-graduation-rate institutions in the Los Angeles (n=12) and New York City (n=11) regions have a supply of between 24,000 and 60,000 transfer-ready community college students due to the sheer number of community colleges in those areas. Conversely, three private institutions have no community college students within 50 miles, mostly because they are in rural settings. All 251 institutions in our analyses, however, have at least one community college within 100 miles.
- In many cases, a single community college is the closest community college to multiple private institutions. In Pennsylvania, Harrisburg Area Community College has more than 1,700 transfer-ready students enrolled each year and is the closest community college for six private, four-year institutions: Bucknell University, Dickinson College, Elizabethtown College, Lebanon Valley College, Messiah College and Susquehanna University (Harrisburg Area Community College is also the closest community college to Penn State’s University Park Campus). This situation -- where two or more high-graduation-rate colleges share a single proximate community college -- is not uncommon, and suggests there may be value in multi-institutional collaborations to expand local community college transfer pipelines.
- Strong partnerships between four-year institutions and their local community colleges can create meaningful change for community college students. The University of Dayton’s UD Sinclair Academy, formed in partnership with Sinclair Community College, offers more than 70 unique pathways from Sinclair associate degrees to Dayton bachelor’s degrees. In the spring 2021 semester alone, about 250 students were enrolled at both Sinclair and University of Dayton. These two institutions are only 1.5 miles apart, which may seem uncommon, but in our data set, the average distance to the closest community college is only 10 miles, and there are actually 18 institutions for which the closest community college is less than two miles away.
Codifying a local partnership is a good first step toward improving transfer pathways, but to maximize transfer student success, institutions must also deepen and sustain their collaboration through activities such as responsive advising structures, coherent program maps, shared student success goals and continuous development. For more information about building strong transfer programs, please visit other posts in this “Tackling Transfer” series, like this piece on using technology to improve student success and this piece focused on building a transfer-receptive culture.
Our analysis reinforces prior research that demonstrates that the supply of community college students from local community colleges is vast. And, to truly serve the public good, selective colleges and universities must further diversify their student populations by seeking out new pipelines for talented and deserving students, especially those right in their backyard.
For the full report that this blog post is based on, along with the underlying data, please visit https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/right-in-your-backyard/.