The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on whether race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are lawful. The court is widely expected to overturn the use of race as a factor in who is admitted.
An important part of the solution to the challenge of higher education access and upward mobility is right in front of us: community colleges. This vast and affordable sector of the American higher education system is filled with great potential, as it serves as the gateway to higher education for many first-generation college students.
About one-third of recent high school graduates who pursue postsecondary education enroll in two-year institutions, and plenty more attend as older students. Many are from low-income backgrounds, are students of color or both—and for many, this was the only higher education path accessible to them. Notably, while four in five students who start at community college aspire to transfer to a four-year school and earn a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six actually does. Yet data from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation show that at the most competitive universities, community college transfer students have higher graduation rates than students enrolling from high school or transferring from other four-year institutions.
How do we unlock the potential of community college transfer?
I am part of the 11 percent of community college students from a lower-income background who made the transfer to a four-year institution and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. I can attest that even as selective four-year colleges seek to enroll more economically and racially diverse students, community colleges are teeming with smart, talented students who just need the guidance, resources and opportunity.
When I arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic with my mother and brother at the age of 5, I spoke no English. I grew up in a small apartment in Queens, attended local public schools and enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. As a first-generation college student, I experienced firsthand the challenges of navigating the college application process with limited resources and guidance. Thankfully, I was accepted into the Kaplan Educational Foundation leadership program, which provides academic and financial support to underrepresented community college students through the transfer process. With the program’s help, I was able to transfer to Smith College after earning my associate degree. Today, I am running the very program that changed my life.
But experiences like mine are the exception. The goal should be to establish the routine expectation among all the relevant players that community college transfers belong at strong four-year schools. That’s true in states like California, where close to a third of undergraduates in the prestigious University of California system—including at the sought-after Berkeley and UCLA campuses—transfer from community colleges. A concerted focus nationwide to support the transfer pipeline of community college students to four-year schools would have a transformative impact on the American opportunity pipeline.
This will take several connected strategies that require action by education policy makers, higher education institutions, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and students themselves. They include:
Statewide credit-transfer policy reforms. The transfer process is complex and confusing for students, with numerous general education classes at community colleges not even counted for credit by the receiving four-year institutions. Creating statewide transfer pathways that streamline course mobility is key. Efforts are underway by organizations like the Teagle Foundation and Ithaka S+R, as well as in the public sector. An Aspen Institute College Excellence Program initiative has 32 four-year universities and 32 community colleges working to simplify transfer. This shows promise: the Hechinger Institute reports that one participant has cut in half the dismaying 42 percent of its 270 general ed classes that weren’t previously accepted for credit by the state’s two public universities.
Active recruitment and better advising from four-year colleges. This includes starting transfer pathways as early as high school through dual-enrollment programs, as well as better personal advising for students to support what can be a socially and academically challenging transition. And support from community-based organizations, which work closely with disadvantaged students and are trusted by them, will be important to building bridges between undergraduates and both two- and four-year colleges.
A culture shift. Aside from institutional buy-in, cultural expectation needs to be established among students themselves. I am thankful that as a community college student I was able to attend the Exploring Transfer program held by Vassar College. This introduced me to what’s possible—and now it is working with a group of 30 liberal arts colleges considering creating similar programs.
None of these efforts require any consideration of race. But they will have a huge impact on the inclusion and success of many low-income students, often Black and Latino, who are sorely underrepresented on too many campuses. In a post–affirmative action world, improving the community college transfer process is a matter of enlightened self-interest for four-year colleges that face dwindling enrollment and seek a richer mix of students. For everyone who seeks to make upward mobility a wider reality, it’s also a tremendous opportunity.