Not surprisingly, low-income students are more likely than their higher-income peers to start postsecondary education at lower-cost community colleges than at four-year institutions. Add this fact to the booming enrollment at community colleges—approximately 7 million students or nearly half of all undergraduate students today—and one can quickly surmise that community colleges are an important starting point for low-income students of all academic abilities seeking to obtain bachelor’s degrees. However, in spite of the high-profile national agenda to improve college outcomes for low-income students, as few as 12% of community college students who express an intention to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree actually do so, according to a 2013 report by the Century Foundation. So what more can be done to push students along to bachelor’s degree completion?
One way to start is to identify high-achieving community college students who plan to transfer and encourage them to apply to selective and highly selective colleges and universities, which are known to graduate greater proportions of their students including low- to moderate-income students.
There are challenges, however, with such a plan. Despite academic success at the community college level, low-income students have a difficult pathway to navigate to get to elite institutions, and such institutions, particularly those that decry the dearth of accessible high-achieving, low-income students, have not been looking in the right places nor making it easy for academically qualified students to access their institutions. Leadership at both two-year and four-year colleges, institutional buy-in, and effective pre- and post-transfer advising are all needed to build better transfer pathways for qualified students.
In 2006, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation took on this challenge and funded 14 highly selective colleges and universities with the goal of developing practices that promote sustainable increases in the number of community college high-achievers from low- to moderate-income backgrounds. Part of the goal was not just increased enrollment but student success at those institutions. The program, called the Community College Transfer Initiative (CCTI), was funded for eight years through 2014.
The initiative recognized both the influence of attending selective colleges and universities on lower-income students’ future success and the contributions that the students could make to the four-year campuses. After all, community college students are more likely to be older, underrepresented minorities, and first generation college-going, according to a recent article by published The Journal of Higher Education, published by the Ohio State University Press. But, it also acknowledged that low-income community college students faced economic, cultural and informational barriers to accessing these institutions.
An evaluation of the CCTI conducted by Cathy Burack and Susan Lanspery of the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis University found that when given the opportunity to transfer and comparable financial aid to similarly situated native students, low-income community college students will thrive at highly selective four-year institutions. Over a three-year period, CCTI students collectively maintained a 3.0 GPA, earned 95% of the credits they attempted, and persisted to graduation. Participating students not only performed well, they experienced other benefits: the onset of new possibilities, higher aspirations—after transferring, nearly 80% planned to attend graduate school compared with only 20% prior to transferring—and what one student described as intellectual “feasting.”
Just as important to the long-term viability of these kinds of programs the institutions themselves benefitted from the CCTI programs. Two-year colleges enriched their institutional transfer culture, increased information about transfer options for students, improved advising programs, and for some institutions, enhanced efforts to develop more rigorous curricular and honors programs. At four-year institutions, diversity of the student body increased in terms of life experiences, income and maturity. CCTI students contributed to the intellectual life of the campuses and became campus leaders.
If transfer inures to the benefit of all, then why don’t more lower-income community college students make their way to top colleges? The students who benefitted most from CCTI were the ones who typically would not have considered the possibility of attending a highly selective institution because they would not have known how to navigate the process, would have believed these institutions were cost-prohibitive, and would have felt that they did not belong.
For maximum success, institutions must find and prepare the right students and support them through and after transfer. Some students will already be on the path to transferring to top four-year institutions. To find and encourage students who may not already be aware of their options, the CCTI institutions identified many effective practices, such as:
- Developing partnerships with community colleges. The best partnerships identified key individuals at both institutions focused on facilitating student transfer; established structures to facilitate frequent communication; and were mutually respectful, stressing the importance of learning from each other.
- Convening a planning team, which sought to better understand the decision-making of low- to moderate-income community college students and the factors that contribute to their success.
- Developing academic collaborations, ranging from co-presenting at conferences to more robust relationships involving faculty co-teaching classes to community college students.
- Involving students who had already transferred in the outreach process to serve as ambassadors and peer mentors, provide input, and offer student perspectives to prospective transfer students.
One of the key takeaways for the Jack Kent CookeFoundation is that there are many students who excel in community colleges and will continue to excel if given the chance to transfer to highly selective colleges. But, whether they get to transfer is largely in the hands of the leadership, faculty, and staff at both the four-year and two-year colleges.
Emily R. Froimson, vice president of programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, oversaw the Community College Transfer Initiative from 2006 to 2014.