Transforming Transfer in Selective Colleges and Universities


Millions of community college students are currently pursuing their graduate studies. Many aspire to transfer to a four-year college or university. But if trends continue, only a fraction of them will make the leap, especially to a selective institution. Now that we can look at the data from the fall 2017 cohort, we just see three percent of transfer to community college registered students in selective schools.

It’s disappointing, considering tens of thousands of community college students have the credentials, skills, and talents to excel in selective colleges and universities. The pandemic has likely resulted in other missed opportunities, with enrollment transferred to community colleges decreased by 12.5% in highly selective establishments last spring. This trend has major equity implications for these schools, given who enrolls in community colleges: Recent data shows that about 40% of community college students are black or Latino, and nearly half are from low-income backgrounds.

Through our work at Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Aspen Institute Academic Excellence Programwe aim to broaden the horizon of what is possible for the incredible talent that resides in community colleges.

For the past 21 years, the Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship has supported hundreds of transfer students as they thrive at these institutions – and we have supported thousands more through Community College Transfer Initiative grants to selective schools. Last spring we awarded the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship to 100 high-achieving community college students, the largest group in the program’s history. These students are on the verge of realizing their potential in part because we are addressing the barrier of cost for transfer students – devoting up to $55,000 per year for each student towards tuition, living expenses, books and expenses – and support their development through summer internship grants, career guidance and funding for travel to attend conferences.

Consider the stories of two Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholars. Francesca Raoelison, who transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to Brown University in 2018, was featured in the boston globe and TEDx for founding Omena, a non-profit organization that works to end cycles of emotional abuse in his home country, Madagascar. Morning Ghavamizadeh transferred from Los Angeles Valley College at the University of California, Berkeley for a double major in Applied Mathematics/Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He then studied probabilistic machine learning at the University of Cambridge and continues his research as a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Through the American Talent Initiativewhich we co-manage in Aspen, we work with the presidents and senior leaders of the nation’s leading schools to attract, enroll, and support more transfers from community colleges like Francesca and Matin.

Our organizations have come together to make further progress towards this goal through the Transfer Scholars Networkthat connects students at eight community colleges with admissions representatives from 13 highly selective private institutions offering generous financial assistance. In its first year, early results are promising: 372 students from high-performing community colleges have connected with four-year admissions officers at those schools and are receiving guidance and support to apply as transfers and finally register.

Admitting more transfers to community colleges is only the first step: Selective schools must transform the transfer student experience to ensure those who are admitted can thrive.

Here are three important steps for selective institutions to consider:

  • Partnerships with community colleges. Small, selective schools may not be able to build strong pipelines with community colleges in the same way as their larger, more access-focused counterparts. However, they can build meaningful relationships in other ways. For example, presidents of selective institutions can reach out to their community college peers to learn more about each other’s students, initiate partnerships among their faculty to co-teach courses, and negotiate relationships between admissions and principals. community college counselors and mentors.
  • Dedicated financial aid and transfer affordability. With two-thirds of transfer students come from low-income backgrounds, selective schools are well placed to ensure transfers access an affordable four-year education coupled with generous financial aid. Four-year schools can reinforce a message of affordability through recruitment and outreach efforts, dispelling the perception that their institutions are out of reach. Along with sustained investments in financial aid and additional funding for the specific needs of transfer students (such as housing and child care), selective schools may accept more community college credits to further reduce the cost overall attendance.
  • Emphasize transfer students’ sense of belonging. With transfers representing a small segment of the student population, selective schools need to think about how they foster a sense of inclusion and belonging. Supporting dedicated transfer initiatives such as family housing, transfer centers and transfer staff go a long way in helping students see how they would fit in and thrive. By increasing leadership opportunities and access to high-impact experiences, selective schools can signal to transfers that they are valued members of the campus community.

The transfer manual indicates that presidential leadership is a key factor in ensuring the success of transfer students. This applies to selective institutions. Presidential engagement can help pave the way for the financial investment, the addition of human capital, the adjustments to academic policies and student life, and the culture change necessary for a strong transfer student experience. When this happens, we see transfer students to community colleges like Francesca and Matin poised to succeed and enrich campuses in the process.

Alan Royal is the Director of Outreach and Partnerships with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Benjamin Fresquez is a Senior Program Manager in the Excellence Program at Aspen Institute College. For more information on the Cooke Transfer Scholarship and the application process, launched in October, Click here.


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