Not Scared of Selectivity

Report highlights how successful community college transfer students can be at top-tier four-year institutions -- if they get the right kind of assistance.
September 16, 2010

WASHINGTON — Community college students can successfully transfer to some of the nation’s most selective four-year institutions and perform as well as those who start as freshmen, if they are given appropriate academic and social support, a new report on a five-year project by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation finds.

The Community College Transfer Initiative, started in 2005, provided about $7 million over four years to eight four-year institutions — Amherst College, Bucknell University, Cornell University, Mount Holyoke College, University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Southern California — in an effort “to promote sustainable, long-term increases in the number of high-achieving community college students from low-income families transferring to the nation’s selective four-year institutions.” These institutions worked with nearby community colleges to eliminate kinks in the transfer process and also offered potential transfers specialized orientation and ongoing tutoring to smooth the transition. In recent years, some of the participating institutions — like Mount Holyoke — have formalized such transfer programs for the long term.

The foundation kicked off a conference on transfer programs Wednesday and released its report as part of that event.

From 2007 through 2010, nearly 2,000 community college transfer students enrolled in these eight institutions because of the project. Prior to it, many of these more selective institutions did not have structured programs to assist community college transfer students and, as a result, often did not enroll many.

Photo: Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

About 65 percent of the transfer students were at least two years older than “traditional” students of their same academic level at these four-year institutions. Most reported that they had worked between high school and college, delaying their studies. Also, 41 percent of them identified themselves as the first in their family to attend a four-year institution.

Emily Froimson, director of higher education programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, noted that further information about the performance of these community college transfer students is to come in a more comprehensive report in December. Still, she said the data would show that the transfer students assisted by this program had comparable grade point averages and graduation rates to those of native students at these eight institutions.

This success, Froimson argued, is important to highlight because qualified community college students are not always encouraged to apply to more selective four-year institutions, even though this may be a good move for them.

“We know from research that high achieving low-income students will graduate at higher rates if they go to more selective institutions,” Froimson said. “Why? We’re not sure at the moment. We just know that [attending a more selective institution] matters more, in particular, for low-income students in a way that it doesn’t for higher-income students. They’ll graduate at the same rates regardless of where they attend.”

It is Froimson’s hope, she said, that the results of this project can bring together community colleges and selective four-year institutions, which have often ignored one another, in new, more productive ways. And it is not just the four-year institutions that have preconceived notions, she added.

“We have heard from some of our own scholars that their students are told, ‘You won’t fit in [at a selective college]’ or that ‘These types of institutions don’t take students like you,’ ” Froimson said. “Mostly, it’s just a lack of familiarity with these institutions or the fact that a [community college] counselor may have more familiarity with that state college down the street. In terms of transfer, it’s easier than they think.”

Also among some of the report’s preliminary findings, the program’s transfer students felt positively about their integration, both academically and socially, into their new four-year institutions. About 70 percent reported that “they were either well-prepared or very-well prepared for academics at the four-year institution.” Just a bit more than a quarter of them said they had had “serious academic difficulties during the previous academic year.” Finally, only 19 percent reported ever “having thought about dropping out.”

Minds changed at the four-year level as well. The report notes that some schools and departments within participating institutions initially were unwilling to take on these community college transfer students because of worries about their academic preparation. Though Froimson did not wish to identify any of these initial doubters, she was able to characterize them broadly.

“There were challenges in particular in areas where faculty have more control over department admissions,” Froimson said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the hesitance was there simply from lack of experience with community colleges. … [Science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields were generally harder to work with. Although, I don’t know if that was because of faculty perceptions as much as the challenges of transfer and sequencing.”

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