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Britt was a good but not outstanding student in high school. She had always planned to go to college, but as the first in her family to graduate from high school, she wasn’t exposed at home to information about the college selection or application process; because she wasn’t in high school honors classes, she didn’t hear much about them from peers or teachers. In the late spring of her senior year, she received an email about a flexible application deadline at an out-of-state college she wasn’t familiar with. She applied and was accepted. The day before she intended to move there, she learned that her financial aid application was incomplete, and so she decided not to enroll. Instead, she drove to the community college 10 minutes from her home, met an adviser and enrolled in classes.

Rob is a veteran who completed his military service 15 years ago earned an applied associate degree, then worked in a trade until an injury forced him to consider new options. He decided to return to the community college to begin working toward a bachelor’s degree. Using his GI Bill benefits and taking general education classes, he is looking for a college where he can “speed the process [to a bachelor’s degree] up” and where transfer will be “easy and smooth.”

Neither Britt nor Rob knows precisely what they want to study or where, but both are sure that they can find the right transfer destination, the one that “feels like home,” as Britt says, with the “right” major and environment. Rob says determinedly and hopefully that he is “ready to do whatever” to find and advance in a career, wanting a college that will recognize the value of his trade classes and skills and offer coursework to supplement them.

How to Enhance the Knowledge and Skills Necessary to Navigate Transfer

I met and had the opportunity to later interview Britt and Rob at the Virginia Community College System’s Student Leadership Conference, which they’d each been nominated to attend. On different paths that weren’t always smooth, Britt and Rob—like other students I interviewed—had clearly developed the knowledge and skills needed to be successful at the community college.

Everyone possesses different kinds of cultural capital, which is the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate specific environments. Higher education is one such specific environment, and a person needs specific cultural capital to be successful in it. Britt and Rob certainly brought valuable cultural capital to college, both having experienced and overcome numerous challenges in life and planning ahead, but they didn’t arrive with all the cultural capital needed to successfully navigate the college environment. Resourceful individuals, though, they identified and developed that cultural capital through TRIO and the veterans’ support office, meetings with advisers and faculty, and conversations with and observations of peers.

In a way, cultural capital can feel hereditary: someone whose parents went to college hears about college and the college application and selection process throughout their childhood. When it comes time for them to determine their college path, these students already possess much of the college-navigating cultural capital needed for that process and for success in college. Many first-generation college students and international students, however, don’t inherit that cultural capital. Britt and Rob fall into that category and are in the process of adding that type of cultural capital to their existing capital, a potentially powerful combination.

Some students with college-navigating cultural capital intentionally select a 2+2 route through the community college to a bachelor’s degree for financial, family or geographic reasons. Many community college students, however, have stumbled into the community college, as Britt did, or first entered the workforce or military, as Rob did. These paths are both the effect of not having college-navigating cultural capital and a cause, as students without this cultural capital have more limited access to information that could influence decision-making and cause them to miss out on information because of their distance from college and college advising. So in a way, college-navigating cultural capital can feel not only hereditary, but also compounding.

Transfer Is a Path to Finding the Right Fit

A central part of college-navigating cultural capital is the awareness of the value of finding a college that feels right—that amorphous idea of the right fit or, as Britt expressed, a college that “feels like home.” In the transfer world, our focus is understandably most often on mechanics: ensuring that credits transfer, agreements are in place and the process is streamlined. Often this means concentrating on dyads, offering students detailed paths primarily or exclusively to the local four-year public institution.

While extremely important, a sole focus on these elements of transfer disadvantages students who have come to community college with a pre-existing disadvantage: a student who comes to community college without the cultural capital to make a fully informed college selection can have a second chance to do this upon transfer. We can and should help students find the college that is the right fit—through advising, a transfer portal, student organizations and university visits—encouraging students to explore transfer destinations. Working with transfer students, we should not assume or assign a community college student’s path to the bachelor’s degree.

A recent report found that both Pell and non-Pell recipients intended to transfer at the same rates, but the lower-income students transferred at notably lower rates. In other words, the report points out, “the students who stand to gain the most from transferring and completing a bachelor’s degree are the least likely to do so.” Lower-income students, more likely to be first-generation college attendees, are the ones learning the college-navigating cultural capital for the first time. While focusing on the mechanics of transfer can improve the process for them, we will further increase student success by guiding students to transfer to the college that will best support them, the college that feels right and that feels “like home.”

While we know that unwieldy transfer mechanics impair student success, we also know from students like Britt and Rob that, like their peers who had ample college-navigating cultural capital in high school, transfer students want the college that is the right fit. We can help students feel at home at their transfer institution in two ways: strengthening the dyads so that our regional pathways work seamlessly and students find a comfortable and supportive home at the nearby four-year institution, or making sure that prospective transfer students can explore different four-year colleges and find the college that is right for them. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, doing both strengthens each. As we do the crucial, iterative work of improving the mechanics of transfer, we can also support students in developing college-navigating cultural capital that leads to success, through transfer and on to a bachelor’s degree.

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