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Pathways to a Baccalaureate: How Elite Institutions Can Stand Out to Two-Year Students

The EvoLLLution | Pathways to a Baccalaureate: How Elite Institutions Can Stand Out to Two-Year Students
Elite colleges and universities can play a leading role in supporting non-traditional students’ transfer from community colleges to bachelor’s degree programs, but this work takes conscious effort and commitment on both sides of the bridge.

The National Center of Educational Statistics reports that just under half of the 20 million students enrolled in higher education in the US are studying at community colleges.

While most four-year colleges admit transfer students from community colleges, some are more “transfer friendly” than others. One size does not fit all—particularly for non-traditional students—and adequate financial aid, good orientation programs, special academic advising, commuter lounges (with printers and coffee!) and family housing help smooth the transition for veterans, parents, commuters and working professionals.

Elite Institution Collaboration

Many competitive, residential, independent colleges—including Smith—recruit vigorously at community colleges, working collaboratively with transfer counselors and faculty to identify and inspire top students. Several small, selective, liberal arts colleges in New England joined forces to form the Consortium of Educators of Non-Traditional Students (CENTS) for networking and brainstorming about how to best recruit, enroll and serve non-traditional students. Most of my recruitment travel to community colleges is a collaborative effort with Mount Holyoke and Wellesley, sharing the advantages of transferring to a women’s college with special programs for non-traditional students.

In 2015, Service to School (S2S), an educational mentoring program for veterans and active service members, launched VetLink, a collaborative effort with top schools including Amherst, Cornell, MIT, Notre Dame, Princeton, Smith, Williams and Yale. Ambitious vets, many of whom have earned transfer credit at community colleges, are offered support and counseling—before and after they transfer.

Leveraging Financial Aid and Support

What many non-traditional transfers from community college don’t realize is that with financial aid, an expensive private college is affordable. Smith’s Vice President of Enrollment Audrey Smith explains, “Understanding what an individual will be expected to pay for her college education can be a challenge because the sticker price is often very different than the net price or the price that an individual will be expect to pay after financial aid is factored in. A low-income student at schools like Smith with relatively high sticker prices is likely to have a lower net price here than if she were to go to a less expensive public university or private college that is unable to meet her full demonstrated need.”

Ninety-four percent of Ada Comstock Scholars (Smith’s non-traditional transfer students) receive need-based financial aid. One of our students—a single mom with 3 children living in family housing on campus—told me that with financial aid, Smith cost her less than her state university. Another student reported that Smith cost her less than her community college where she didn’t qualify for need-based aid.

In addition to institutional, federal and state sources of funding, there are many sources of “outside” aid for non-traditional students. For example, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awards the largest private scholarship for two-year and community college transfer students in the country. Thousands of students applied this year for fewer than 100 scholarships. While those odds sound daunting, many community college students who aren’t fortunate enough to win a remarkable outside grant, receive aid from the transfer college to the full extent of demonstrated financial need, which for most feels better than winning the lottery.

Persisting Roadblocks to Transfer for Community College Students

So, if selective colleges are eager to recruit transfers from community colleges and they are able to offer generous financial aid and other resources, why aren’t community college students flocking to them? Sue Adler, Director of the well established and well respected Honors Program at Montgomery College (MD) suggests, “Community college students often assume that the only option they have is an in-state public school for their four-year degree. They short change themselves by not thinking outside the box. There are many academically talented, well prepared, bright students at community colleges who have no idea that a selective school is within their reach. As the advisor to the honor society, I often have to convince students with high grade point averages that they most likely can gain admission to a competitive four-year school.”

And, then there’s the fear factor. President David Potash advises his students at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, to become “comfortable with discomfort” during the transfer process. Applying to a selective college can be more complex than applying to a community college and David realizes that his students might feel a bit out of control and even frightened by what might happen. Nobody likes to get rejected and that’s a risk particularly at colleges that are super selective. But, it’s worth a try. We counsel students to personalize the application but de-personalize the decision process hoping that they will realize that being denied admission doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t qualified or couldn’t handle the rigor, but rather there were many applicants vying for limited spaces. One of my favorite Smith alums was a student initially denied admission. I encouraged her to enroll at our local community college and reapply. Not only was she admitted the second time around, but she was also offered a fellowship for one of our master’s programs after she earned her bachelor’s degree.

Although community college students are often juggling a lot of balls—with work, family and school—it’s critical for them to take advantage of the opportunities to prepare for transfer. Transfer counseling centers at community colleges offer programs such as the Transfer-Mation Leadership Conference at the City College of Chicago offering workshops for current students and alumni.

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston offers intensive transfer workshops during winter and spring school breaks, to accommodate students who simply can’t add one more activity while classes are in session. Senior Special Program Coordinator Wick Sloan, uses social media to expand messaging options. According to Wick, “We use every possible communication method we can to reach as many prospective transfers as possible.”

The Four-Year Opportunity

Community college transfers should be reminded that there are lots of great colleges to consider in addition to those with the biggest names. Jacque Clinton, former Honors Program Manager at Highline Community College in Seattle observes, “One of the biggest challenges that students face when transferring from community college to selective four-year schools is a lack of awareness of their options. They’ve heard of Harvard, but they may not know about Smith, Williams, Swarthmore and hundreds of other fabulous colleges that may be a good fit for them. If a student hears about one school and falls in love with it, they should certainly apply, but they should also continue their research to find similar schools. Apply to a few reach schools, not just one.”

For the past 30 years, the Exploring Transfer Program at Vassar College has offered a residential, liberal arts summer program to first-generation community college students with scholarships to cover tuition, room, books and other supplies. Each summer, I visit Vassar with colleagues from Mount Holyoke and Amherst to recruit ET students.

It’s never too late to earn a bachelor’s degree and community colleges provide great springboards for non-traditional students to prepare for transfer to selective colleges. Non-traditional students bring wisdom gained from real-world experiences to their classes at competitive colleges. A faculty member at Smith told me that he can always tell in advance how lively discussions will be when he sees how many names of Ada Comstock Scholars are on his class roster. Another confided that he’ll never cut an Ada Comstock Scholar from an overenrolled class.