For years, education experts have been saying that community colleges offer an underutilized path in higher education. States spend less money per student there and tuition is much lower. The institutions' emphasis on teaching and on recruiting low-income and minority students means that they reach and graduate many students overlooked by flagships or who can't afford them. While many efforts in recent years have tried to ease transfer from two- to four-year institutions, elite colleges haven't always been part of the equation.
That is notably starting to change. In the last month, two leading public institutions -- the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Virginia -- have announced new initiatives that will guarantee admission to substantial more community college students who meet certain guidelines. And a foundation is spending millions on a program that will aims to help several elites recruit and retain the nation's best low-income two-year graduates. But while these are the sorts of programs many have been waiting for, some students and faculty are dubious. And what experts see as old-fashioned snobbery has become an obstacle.
“There is an assumption about community college students that they went there because they couldn’t get into a better four-year school,” says Joshua Wyner, vice president of programs with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is highly focused on community college student development. “That assumption is simply false in many cases.”
Wyner says that many “traditional” students – those who enter four-year elites directly from high school – will have their misplaced notions challenged. Research commissioned by the Cooke Foundation has shown that transfer students to selective institutions tend to graduate at similar rates and have similar grade-point averages at four-year institutions as those students who begin as freshmen. The Cooke Foundation recently embarked on a $27 million program with eight elite institutions , including Bucknell and Cornell Universities, and the Universities of California at Berkeley, Michigan, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to increase recruitment and financial aid for high-achieving low-income community college students.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison is one of the latest places where students have expressed concerns about community college transfers. Last month, the institution announced an articulation agreement  that will make it easier for Madison Area Technical College students to transfer into the institution for their junior and senior years. As part of the agreement, students must complete 54 credits in the community college’s Liberal Arts Transfer Program and those who receive a 3.0 GPA will be guaranteed admission. Students who receive a 2.6–2.99 GPA will receive “special consideration,” according to the university.
Some students have argued that credits garnered at a community college shouldn’t equate to the rigors of UW’s curriculum, and that community college students should not be given any unique consideration. “I think it’s kind of a slap in the face,” Erica Christenson, chair of the College Republicans, recently told The Badger Herald student newspaper . “To be completely honest, I didn’t come home last night from the library because of all the work [I had to complete] … and I would like to think the GPA I receive here is different from one received at MATC.” Christensen couldn’t be reached for comment for further elaboration, but her comments have set off discussion on campus.
“There’s definitely a snob mentality at Wisconsin that we’re better than other schools,” says Terri Wipperfurth, who transferred from the technical college and is currently a student at UW. “People sometimes think of us as slime creeping under the door.”
Donald Downs, a professor of political science at Madison, says that there’s been some casual discussion among faculty members about the plan. “Yes, anyone who feels a bias towards junior college transfers is being snobby,” he says. The professor believes that some "traditional" students may become angry if they think that community college students are getting in, and, in turn, preventing new freshman entries.
Chancellor John Wiley says he isn’t concerned about the floodgates opening and says that when he next meets with the Faculty Senate, he plans on addressing concerns about the new program. He projects that about 50 more community college students during each year over the next three years will enter UW in their junior and senior years. “They won’t be competing for freshman spot openings,” he says.
""I don't know why anyone at the University of Wisconsin would look down on such a program," says Wyner. "I think students there should be proud." He says Wisconsin's actions will likely diversify the student body and could result in cost savings for the institution.
About 1,600 community college transfer students already get into the university each year. “We need to find ways for students to start somewhere else,” says Wiley, noting the crush of qualified students currently applying to the institution. “In terms of economics, community colleges just make sense. It’s a cost-effective way to get to where we need to be.”
Wiley says that despite concerns, the university will forge ahead with similar articulation agreements with Milwaukee Area Technical College and Nicolet Community College in the coming weeks.
Similar issues have arisen at the University of Virginia. In April, the institution announced that it will guarantee admission to students from Virginia's 23 community colleges . Students there must complete an associate degree at a Virginia community college within a two-year period preceding application to the UVA, while maintaining a cumulative grade point average of 3.4 or better and a grade of C or better in every community college course except for a B as a minimum grade in introductory English courses.
Greg Roberts, dean of transfer admissions at UVA, says that he’s worked hard to alleviate concerns he’s heard from students, parents and alums that high school students would faced unfair competition from community college students.
“We’ve always looked closely at community college students,” says Roberts, who says that he’s also heard limited concerns about degree dilution. “We have left the doors open to making adjustments, if need be.”
Bettsey L. Barhorst, president of Madison Area Technical College, says that community college students, faculty members and administrators have long been accustomed to biased attitudes.
“We don’t have the prestige, but we deliver the goods,” says Barhorst. “I’m really defensive when people make fun of those who attend community colleges. We’ve been around for 40 years and our students have long performed at comparable rates to students who enter directly from high school.”
Wyner predicts that biases will diminish in coming years due to the sheer number of students who now depend on community colleges as a result of financial realities. “Community colleges have just grown so rapidly in the last couple of decades,” he says. “Any time you have an increase in the number of students accepted from one pipeline, some others from existing pipelines are going to feel threatened.”