A 15-minute drive in Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley separates Mount Holyoke College from Holyoke Community College, but sometimes the two institutions can feel worlds apart.
A collaborative transfer program between the two institutions, however, is providing an opportunity for high-achieving and often disadvantaged local community college students to attend not only the prestigious women’s college but also a number of the area’s other selective liberal arts colleges.
The Community College Transfer Initiative  at Mount Holyoke began in the fall of 2006 thanks to a $779,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which had also given funding to six other highly selective public and private institutions  around the country for similar access programs. Mount Holyoke has committed itself to increasing the enrollment of “low- and moderate-income” community college transfers students by 10 students per year through the four years of the grant. The institution also has increased the number of annual community college recruitment visits from 20, mostly in the northeast, to about 40 nationwide.
In its first full year, according to a program evaluation  from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Mount Holyoke received 156 transfer applications from community college students and admitted 83 of them. This is up from 107 applications it received the previous year. The next full year, Mount Holyoke received 178 community college transfer applications. The college was unable to provide updated admissions statistics, but officials say the number of community college transfers has increased in the past academic year. Although such numbers might appear small compared to large public universities in many states, these figures are highly unusual for elite private institutions.
Though Mount Holyoke has increased its outreach to community colleges around the country, most of the work it is doing starts at home with nearby Holyoke Community College. Mount Holyoke gave more than $300,000 in its grant funds to help establish the community college’s Pathways Program , an effort at the two-year institution to push “strong, committed, under-represented students” to transfer to selective liberal arts colleges in the area. In this way the program hopes to enroll students not only at Mount Holyoke but also at institutions like Amherst, Smith and Hampshire College by providing them with many academic support services not offered to all students, such as academic and financial aid counseling and special seminars with Mount Holyoke faculty.
Both the community college and Mount Holyoke now have full-time transfer coordinators to help ease the process for interested students. Once students are identified for the program while at Holyoke Community College, they have many chances to interact with students and faculty at Mount Holyoke.
Fifteen students from the community college have the opportunity to take a Math Transition Seminar  at Mount Holyoke – a five week, non-credit course that allows the students to get to know the four-year campus and interact with its students and faculty. The course also provides these community college students with a glimpse of what coursework, particularly mathematics related work, will be like at a four-year college. Though Mount Holyoke is a women’s college, this course – like all of the other collaborative efforts between the institutions – is offered to male students as well. The goal is to expose these students to the type of small, liberal arts experience they might also encounter at a nearby co-ed institution.
“For a lot of folks, mathematics is the last thing they’d pick to feel comfortable in a place,” said Charlene Morrow, a professor at Mount Holyoke who teaches the special course to interested community college transfers. “That’s kind of why we chose to offer it to these students. You can feel a lot of empowerment if you understand it. This is about teaching problem solving in mathematics. It’s not meant to be remedial or as a refresher, but to get them to approach mathematics differently.”
Though the course focuses on mathematics, Morrow acknowledges it is also about integrating these students to the foreign environment of Mount Holyoke’s campus.
“We start the course over at the community college for a week to get their minds on mathematics, because they’re already fearful enough about coming over here,” Morrow said. “Once they see that we’re all human and not that different from their current instructors, we bring them over to Mount Holyoke for the final four weeks. They’re in a regular classroom and we usually have a course assistant, who is a Mount Holyoke student. Most of this, however, really is getting them to envision themselves here, walking around the campus. Throughout the class, though it’s not the focus, we also talk about what fears and anxieties they may have about transferring.”
Students from the math seminar also interact with peer mediators from Mount Holyoke’s Frances Perkins Program , a scholarship for non-traditionally aged students who typically have transferred in from a community college.
Karen Crossi, a 33 year-old senior and a peer mentor, successfully transferred to Mount Holyoke from Holyoke Community College because of its Pathways Program.
“Mount Holyoke was never on my radar,” she said. “It always seemed like an impenetrable school that I’d never get into and I never thought I would want to go to. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college and, being in the valley long enough, I knew Mount Holyoke as an elitist place. But, after visiting and meeting others from my background, I understood that Mount Holyoke wasn’t just a place for women who were sculpted from birth to go to a place like this.”
She said she hopes to pass along this message to the Holyoke Community College students who she mentors on campus.
“A lot of students worry that they are unprepared, academically, for a place like this,” Crossi said. “They also worry that their socioeconomic class will be an issue for them to get in. Those two aren’t the case. It’s always more meaningful to hear that from someone who’s walked in your shoes than from someone in an office. It makes it more believable. I can tell them what classes to take at the community college to be more successful here and provide other insight that they won’t get elsewhere.”
Holyoke Community College officials refused to comment for this story despite multiple requests, but a 2007 performance measurement report  of the two-year institution by the state indicates that 150 students were served by the program that year. That year, because of the program, 17 students were accepted to Mount Holyoke, 14 to Smith, 2 to Amherst and 1 to Hampshire.
Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment at Mount Holyoke, said the college’s recent initiatives have made the college more community college friendly. She noted that there are about 180 community college transfer students at the college currently, accounting for nearly 8 percent of its student population. About half of those students come from Massachusetts community colleges, and 38 of those are from Holyoke Community College.
“This is a historical effort for us,” Brown said. “We were founded as a college for women of modest means. You sometimes think of Mount Holyoke as being a typical selective New England college. But, if you’re interested in finding the best and brightest women, more of them are now coming from the community college system. … This isn’t really about enrollment. Because so many of the students coming from community college require such enormous financial aid, I wouldn’t look to this population if I just wanted to fill beds.”
Though the grant-funded program at the institution does not have a financial aid component, Brown insists that the college will find a way to fund any student who is accepted. She estimates about 90 percent of the community college transfers the college attracts are eligible for some sort of institutional aid.
Still, the true payoff for Brown and other Mount Holyoke officials is the success these transfer students attain at their institution. Brown noted community college transfers are often over-represented, relative to their percentage of the student population, in the number of those receiving Latin honors at graduation. Community college transfers also graduate in comparable percentages to those students who got their start at Mount Holyoke.
“It’s a way to bridge the divide,” Brown said of the college’s success in attracting two-year transfers. “At least for a lot of the local community college students, they could not imagine themselves at a place like Mount Holyoke, even though we’re just down the road.”
Mount Holyoke is not only admitting more community college transfers -- it also hired one to be its next president. Earlier this month, Lynn Pasquerella was named the college’s new president ; she will take office next summer. She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1980 but transferred in from Quinebaug Valley Community College, in Connecticut.