New Approach to Community College Transfers

Dickinson, a private liberal arts institution, creates link to honors programs at four two-year institutions, offering financial and academic support in hopes of attracting new cohorts.
March 20, 2009

With the Northeast projected to experience a decline in high school graduates, tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges in the region are looking for new ways to recruit students.

Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, is looking to community colleges to help fill its seats. On Thursday, it unveiled a new comprehensive transfer partnership with honors programs at four community colleges: Harrisburg Area and Northampton Community Colleges in Pennsylvania, and Howard and Montgomery Community Colleges in Maryland.

The program goes beyond a typical articulation agreement in a number of ways. Those honors students who complete their associate degrees with at least a 3.25 grade point average will not only be accepted to Dickinson but will also earn a merit scholarship worth between $10,000 and $15,000 for two years in addition to any need-based aid for which they might be eligible. Students who express interest in Dickinson early in their community college career will be given advising and counseling from officials from both institutions to ease the transition. Dickinson will also bring these students to its campus multiple times so they can meet professors and sit in on classes.

Once these students make it to Dickinson, they will be expected to graduate in two years. As participating community colleges are expected to send a few students to Dickinson each year, these students will already have a support system in place to help them adjust to residential college life away from home. These students will not, however, room together or otherwise be grouped together once they're at Dickinson, in order to avoid the creation of any artificial distinction between them and the rest of the student body.

Dickinson officials hope initially to attract a handful of students from each of these four community colleges every year. If all goes well and the program proves successful after a trial period, it will be expanded to 10 or 15 other two-year institutions in the area.

Robert J. Massa, Dickinson vice president for enrollment, said the program will help the college meet its goal of boosting its transfer population. Currently, he said the college attracts between 25 and 30 transfer students every year. He said that the college would like to attract somewhere between 100 and 120 transfer students.

The transfer program will also bring a more diverse set of students into the college, Massa said, while noting that he was not just referring to skin color. He said that working with these community colleges would also bring in more first-generation students and those from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Currently, more than three-quarters of Dickinson’s students are white, and only around 15 percent are eligible for Pell Grants.

Though the transfer program furthers the institution’s “commitment to access and diversity,” Massa acknowledged that it had more traction in this uncertain financial climate.

“I’d be less than candid if I were to say there weren’t other issues at play,” Massa said. “If the supply of high school graduates weren’t decreasing and money weren’t a problem, would we be looking for community colleges to supply students? Probably not.”

Even with the $10,000 to $15,000 merit scholarships, community college students attending Dickinson would still be stuck with quite a bill. A full year at the institution is close to $50,000, including room, board, and other expenses. Massa said these individuals, like all students at the college, would have their financial need met through other grants, loans and work study. All things considered, though, he noted that these community college students would, financially, be in a better place to consider Dickinson than many other students, because of the guaranteed merit scholarships.

There are some concerns about the program at Dickinson, but Massa chalked this up to normal anxiety from faculty members who think of the institution as offering a complete four-year package. Some, he said, worry that the program cuts into the full experience of being at a residential liberal arts campus for four years.

“Some worry that if too many students come in the middle of their college experience that it will water down the entire program,” said Massa, noting that he believes these students will thrive academically at the institution, disproving this point.

For the community colleges involved, this partnership means providing their students with an opportunity that few might have considered: attending a small liberal arts college. Northampton Community College, for example, sends most of its students to colleges within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, even though it is located near several private liberal arts colleges in the Lehigh Valley.

Officials from Harrisburg Area Community College reported a similar situation.

“Dickinson hasn’t always been a good transfer location for us,” said Edna V. Baehre, its president. “You can count on your hand how many we’ve had in the past few years. This program will provide a great opportunity for our honors cohort to consider going there. [Dickinson’s] future students are likely, more and more, going to be coming from community colleges. I think it was brilliant for them to say, ‘This is where we need to be working for our future students.’ ”

Without knowing whether the program will make Dickinson a more attractive location for their top students, some community colleges are just pleased to be presenting the option. More guaranteed transfer opportunities, they argue, can only help their standing.

“This is perfect for us, because our biggest competitors right now are four-year institutions,” said Barbara C. Greenfeld, associate vice president of enrollment services at Howard Community College. “It’s great to say there’s a transfer relationship to put some validity behind it. Not only is Dickinson saying they’re going to accept you, but [with the scholarships] they’re going to make it possible for you to go. If students choose not to take advantage of that – I’ll be sorry Dickinson isn’t represented by our college – but as long as I know that every student knows about it and makes an informed decision, I’ll be satisfied.”


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