The message was simple: The campus culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill limits access to community college students.
The messenger might have taken some by surprise: It was Steve Farmer, UNC’s own assistant provost and director of undergraduate admissions. Farmer addressed a group gathered Wednesday for the opener of a two-day meeting entitled “A Fresh Look at Equity at Selective Colleges and Universities: Expanding Access for Low-Income Community College Transfers.”
In a given year, Farmer told the attendees, only four percent of incoming students at Chapel Hill are community college transfers.
“We haven’t always been welcoming of transfer students,” Farmer said. “They, in general, are seen as an afterthought or a nuisance. They have different needs and we have to be more personal in accommodating them.”
And, not unimportantly, “they don’t always present the academic credentials,” he said, adding that the transfers tend not to perform as well academically at UNC. “But part of it is we aren’t doing our jobs.”
With that, Farmer announced the launching of a new program, funded largely through a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which supports degree-seeking, financially needy community college students looking to transfer to four-year institutions. The Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program establishes partnerships with three nearby community colleges and guarantees that students who successfully complete the program will be admitted into Chapel Hill.
Participants will be brought onto campus and given the chance to meet faculty and administrators. The students will receive one-on-one mentoring from a UNC faculty advisor. Nine C-STEP students will be enrolled in the fall, with dozens more coming next year, Farmer said.
“The goal is to help students prepare for the academic challenge,” Farmer said. “Faculty want to get to know students, and the students will believe they belong when they come to campus.”
The C-STEP program is one of eight efforts being funded by Jack Kent Cooke grants as part of its Community College Transfer Initiative. Over the next four years, the participating elite universities have pledged to invest more than $20 million to establish programs and to provide aid to 1,000-plus financially needy students.
Many of the programs, including one at Cornell University, seek to expand services to transfer students through summer bridge programs and workshops before fall classes begin that explain what students can expect. Cornell’s initiative includes a stipend so that the community college transfers can participate in an unpaid internship.
The Community College Transfer Initiative is designed to respond to the sort of trends laid out in a report  released last month from scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the University of Southern California. It showed degrees from elite private colleges are increasingly limited to those who enroll as freshmen, even though an increasing number of undergraduate students begin their higher educations at community colleges.
In 1984, roughly 11 percent of entering students at elite private institutions were transfer students; by 2002 that number was only 5.7 percent. The data show that fewer than one in every 1,000 students at the nation’s most selective private schools is a community college transfer. The study also showed that at the elite colleges, the difference in graduation rates between college juniors and community colelge transfers is negligible.
Numerous speakers at the conference referred to cultural barriers facing low-incomg community college students when they transfer to top colleges. UNC's Farmer said that beyond the socioeconomic disparity facing the students, there are often limited orientation programs for them, and professors don't provide much assistance because they assume the students are self-sufficient.
Speakers pointed to the University of California system as one that has emphasized access. The system enrolled about 13,000 community college transfers last year, said Steve Handel, director of the National Office of Community College Initiatives, at the College Board. UC Berkeley is expanding its Transfer Alliance program thanks to a $1 million grant over four years.
At UCLA, the Student Intensive Transfer Experience is in place. The six-day program for underrepresented minority students takes recent high school graduates and places them on UCLA's campus, where they take workshops from UCLA faculty members. The program also gives community college students mentors -- UCLA undergraduates who themselves had transfered from a community college. “We want to talk to them about academics and what they are going to study when they transfer,” said Alfred Herrera, interim director of the Center on Community College Partnerships at UCLA. With $779,000 in grant money from Jack Kent Cooke, Mount Holyoke College and Holyoke Community College are taking a number of steps designed to help students make the leap. HCC is hiring a full-time academic counselor to serve as a liaison between the two institutions, and the community college is creating a quantitative reasoning course designed to give students some of the tools needed to transfer to a four-year college.
“These programs show that you don’t have to have a legislative mandate to get this done,” said Joshua Wyner, vice president of programs for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, said that in thinking about access for low-income community college students, it's important to keep in mind a student's age of entry. A Texas statewide program called "Closing the Gaps" is targeting young Hispanic students who are staying away from college in droves.
"Many are going to community colleges, and that's where we are focusing our efforts," said Raymund Paredes,  commissioner of higher education for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Paredes and Adelman both added that it is important to focus energy on making students elite-college-ready by beefing up the K-12 curriculum and giving them the tools in community college classes. "There’s a desperate need to restore the balance between workforce development and transferable academic programs" at some of the community colleges, Paredes said.