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February 18, 2010

Community college transfer students are no longer being courted only by the usual suspects. More private institutions, of every ilk, are aggressively recruiting students from two-year colleges, hoping to bolster and diversify their enrollments and capitalize on the belt-tightening of regional public universities

“I see more and more privates getting out there and recruiting transfers, whereas there really weren’t that many out there even just a few years ago,” says Brenda Doran, director of transfer admissions at Bryant University, a small, tuition-driven independent institution in Rhode Island that has traditionally relied on community college transfers to meet its enrollment goals. “As with any competition, you just have to be more aggressive than you were in the past.”

Not so long ago, Doran and her colleagues from Bryant were among only a handful of private institutions in the Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts area that actively recruited at local community colleges. Now, competition for these area students is coming not only from other small, tuition-driven private institutions – such as Salve Regina University, in Rhode Island, and Sage College of Albany, in New York – but from some of the sector’s elites. Thus, while Bryant has long had an admissions staff position dedicated to the recruitment of community college students, institutions such as Amherst College have recently added such positions, thanks to grant funding from groups such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

“How do I view it?” asks Doran, who previously worked as a transfer coordinator at a community college. “I’m not sure. Though not everyone will make it, everyone deserves a chance to make it into an institution like that. … Putting on my institutional hat, though, there might be some jealousy. I want that student.”

So why is it that, in the midst of a deep recession – when some small colleges feared that they might have to shut their doors – many private institutions are flocking after community college transfer students? The answer varies, depending on the financial standing of the institution.

For well-endowed private institutions, such as the University of Southern California and New York University – both of which have ratcheted up community college recruitment recently – seeking qualified two-year transfer students improves their demographic mix.

“It helps the selective privates with their diversity, in terms of race and socioeconomic status,” says Josipa Roksa, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who does some community college research. “To get students in certain income brackets, it matters. Oftentimes it’s easier to recruit at community colleges than at challenged high schools. For those who value diversity, whether it’s because of the [college] rankings or their mission, this is where you go.”

This push for diversity drives the recruitment of community college students at places like Southern California – where only 13 percent of undergraduates are Latino, compared to 48 percent of residents in its home city, Los Angeles.

“We’ve been working hard to get minority students from the surrounding area,” says Tatiana Melguizo, professor at USC's Rossier School of Education. “If you look at the first-time freshman students we admit, they’re not as diverse. Still, the university has alternative ways of accepting transfers to bring in the kind of diversity that they can’t get up front. Community college transfers were the best deals. They’re motivated, they’re more likely to graduate, and they’re relatively cheap [for the college to educate].”

Smaller, more tuition-driven independent institutions, however, often have a more practical reason for actively pursuing community college transfer students: the tuition revenue they bring.

“They really need to bring in fresh students who’ll be able to pay for four years,” Melguizo says of many tuition-driven private institutions. “But, if they can get transfers, who get financial aid from the government and other sources, they can at least get two years. And still, community college transfers don’t always take two years. Some stay longer. These institutions are discovering that this is a good way, in terms of cost effectiveness, to bolster their enrollments. These students are appealing, in that you know you don’t have to put so many resources to support them at the beginning as you would a native student.”

But this brand of enrollment boosting and budget balancing needn't seem so calculated, say some community college observers. Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, a community college honors society, concurs that financial considerations have driven most of the recent two-year recruitment by private institutions. He argues, however, that this is a compliment to these students.

“The persistence among community college students at these four-year institutions is very high, and they’re doing the job filling those junior- and senior-year spots,” Risley says. “These colleges wouldn’t go after these students if they weren’t successful."

While still anxious about the slumping economy's impact of their enrollments, some private institutions see opportunity in the recent recruitment competition with their public counterparts. Melguizo notes that some smaller private institutions in California are positioning themselves to appeal to community college students who have had trouble transferring to a University of California or a California State University because of enrollment caps at those institutions due to the state’s budget crisis. For example, Notre Dame de Namur University and Holy Names University, both in the San Francisco Bay area, are among the small, private institutions that have seen their enrollments grow because students are finding it increasingly difficult to enroll in one of the state's public institutions. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify information in this paragraph.)

Even private college officials in states that do not have the pronounced enrollment and budget troubles of California see an opportunity. Doran notes that Bryant will continue to focus on transfer students, especially given the simultaneous enrollment boom and budget cuts at nearby public institutions like the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts.

Other private institutions just want to make sure they stay in the game. Brandon Miller, assistant vice president for student success at Baylor University, says his institution’s further expansion into community college recruiting is driven by the concern that if students in Texas are not made aware of their institution, they might think the ballooning Texas A&M and University of Texas systems are their only choices. In the past year, he notes, Baylor added two transfer admissions officers, one of whom logged more than 6,000 miles last year visiting community colleges around the state and country to recruit students.

Though many private institutions have been more public with their desire to win community college students, researchers caution that there is currently no way to know how successful their efforts have been. Roksa says that large federal and state data sets often do not distinguish whether community college students transfer to private or public institutions.

“The percentage of those students who transferred to private institutions used to be so low – around 15 to 20 percent -- that it was often said, ‘Well, we can just disregard them because our public policy doesn’t influence them,’ ” says Roksa, who believes such research could be helpful to officials at all kinds of colleges. “So, it’s not clear whether this is something that’s true for most privates or even increasingly true for most privates. Still, if the publics are losing students to privates, it’s time to say, 'What’s going on here?' "

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