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Inside elite transfer admissions: From community college to U-Va.

More prestigious schools, including the University of Virginia, are seeing transfers as an engine of diversity.

Doug Hartog, director of admission for the University of Virginia, in his office on campus in Charlottesville on April 19. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)
12 min

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The grades bounced around; a few C’s in high school, a couple of D’s mixed with A’s and B’s in community college. The ACT score, in the 20s, fell below the typical range for the University of Virginia. There were gaps in the general education courses needed for a degree. The first U-Va. admission officer to read this transfer application recommended denial: “Grades not competitive.”

Yet Pierce Coughter, the second reader, spotted potential. The college grades averaged to a B with a challenging schedule. The ACT, to him, was irrelevant. The African American student had overcome financial barriers, cared for a relative at home and persisted through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m going back and forth,” the senior assistant dean of admission said one afternoon in April. He was impressed by the applicant’s accomplishments and resilience. “Grades aren’t awesome, but more than passing a really difficult semester.” Coughter was leaning toward admitting.

Last week, with electronic notifications accompanied by virtual confetti and balloons, U-Va. offered admission to this transfer applicant and more than 1,000 others. Nearly half the offers went to community college students. The university gave The Washington Post a rare look inside its admission deliberations to reveal how the transfer process works and how transfers help shape the student body of a public flagship.

The transfer pathway, long underrated and overlooked amid the frenzy of freshman admissions, is gaining support from leaders of prominent colleges and universities who view it as a powerful tool to diversify campuses across many dimensions, including age, income, race, social class and military service. Transfer admission rates are often much higher at these schools than freshman rates.

Three highly regarded public universities illuminate the point. The University of Michigan posted a freshman admission rate of 26 percent for the fall 2020 semester, compared with a transfer rate of 46 percent. For the University of California at Los Angeles, the freshman rate that year was 14 percent and the transfer rate, 24 percent.

Here at U-Va., the admission rates were 23 percent for freshmen and 40 percent for transfers. Freshman admission seems every year to grow more intensely competitive as ever more applicants swamp the university’s gatekeepers with formidable, A-studded transcripts. The transfer numbers are relatively modest. Incoming freshmen (about 3,900 a year) outnumber new transfer students in Charlottesville (about 700 to 750 a year) more than 5 to 1. But the transfers bring a much wider array of backgrounds to U-Va.

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Twenty-six percent of transfers last year had enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants, the university said, more than twice the Pell-eligible share of freshmen. Transfers were also more likely to be among the first in their families to go to college and to identify as underrepresented minorities. Federal data shows about 14 percent of U-Va. undergraduates are Black or Latino.

Chenelle Williams, 23, is a senior computer science major. Williams, whose mother is a nurse and father an auto technician, grew up in Jamaica, moved to Maryland and then to Virginia after high school. She transferred to U-Va. in 2020 after starting at Reynolds Community College in Richmond to build her educational résumé at low cost.

Williams, who mentors other transfer students at U-Va.’s engineering school, said she has lined up an internship with Amazon and expects to graduate in December. Now a permanent U.S. resident, with a green card, she said she is keenly aware that Black women are underrepresented on campus and in her field. “Lots of people know me as ‘the Jamaican girl in engineering,’” Williams joked. “That is my brand.”

U-Va. President James E. Ryan said university presidents across the state often talk about strengthening partnerships with community colleges. “It helps us fulfill our mission as a public university,” he said, “which is to be a place of opportunity, a place of social mobility.” Ryan said he believes U-Va. should do more to enroll community college students. The university is hiring a liaison to work with nearby Piedmont Virginia Community College, and it will consider similar steps with other colleges. “There’s room for growth,” Ryan said.

Experts agree.

A 2018 report from the Aspen Institute estimated that every year more than 50,000 high-achieving community college students do not transfer to a four-year college or university, and that 15,000 of those students have grade-point averages of 3.7 or higher. The reasons are many, but one factor is uneven outreach from four-year schools. Joshua Wyner, executive director of the institute’s college excellence program, said selective schools ought to do more. “It wouldn’t take that much to make a huge difference in the lives of these hard-working transfer students,” Wyner said.

At a time of intense debate over whether metrics such as admission test scores are valid for predicting academic potential, Wyner said community college students have tangible evidence of what they can do in college — because they’re already doing it. “I’ve got a much greater predictor of college success,” Wyner said. “It’s called college success.”

Community colleges enroll a large number of economically disadvantaged students and students of color. About 13 percent of their enrollment in 2019 was Black, according to analysts, and 26 percent was Hispanic. They could be a recruiting target for universities that want to diversify.

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For highly selective private colleges, transfer programs often function as an outlet for students to move from one prestigious four-year school to another. Some make a point of recruiting transfers who might be older and have military experience. Others, including the University of Southern California, draw heavily from community colleges.

Princeton University reinstated a transfer program in 2018 with a focus on military veterans, first-generation college students, low-income students and community college students. There are about 40 transfer students at Princeton out of 5,300 undergraduates. This year, the university will begin to expand that program, seeking to raise transfer enrollment to 100.

“They really are amazing students, both on paper and in person,” said Keith Shaw, director of transfer, veteran and nontraditional student programs at Princeton. They thrive in the demanding academic environment, he said. “The evidence is clear: Yes, they can hack it.”

Still, Princeton’s transfer numbers are small. UCLA’s are colossal.

A Washington Post analysis of fall 2020 enrollment data for schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 50 national universities found that UCLA had the most new transfer students, with 3,788. It was followed by five other UC campuses, a reflection of the high priority California gives to partnerships between UC and the state’s vast community college system.

Of new undergraduates at UCLA every fall, more than a third are transfers.

Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost for enrollment management, said UCLA’s transfer program aims to provide access for underrepresented communities. “It is a part of the university’s ethos and spirit,” she said. “The public understands that not every student graduates from high school ready for college. Students mature academically at different rates. Also, the lived experiences of students don’t always allow them to go straight from high school to college.”

Other schools, including the University of Central Florida, Arizona State University and George Mason University, are well known for transfer pipelines with local colleges. George Mason enrolls about 3,000 a year in a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College.

In Charlottesville, the community college connections are not as large, but they are durable.

In 2012 and 2013, U-Va. signed agreements that guarantee Virginia community college students will be admitted to its schools of nursing or engineering, or its college of arts and sciences, if they meet certain grade and course requirements. Dozens of students a year take that route. Williams was one.

But university officials stress that guaranteed admission is not the only way in. Community college students who meet many, but not all, of the criteria in those agreements are also admitted. In addition, hundreds of students at four-year colleges and universities transfer every year to U-Va. for various reasons.

The transfer operation at U-Va. is much smaller than its complex first-year admission machine. More than 50,000 high school students applied to enter as freshmen in the coming fall, a total that has risen sharply since the university halted SAT and ACT requirements in 2020. About 9,500 were admitted — 19 percent — in a process that culminated March 18.

By contrast, about 3,400 applied this year to transfer. More than 1,000 offers were released Thursday, and U-Va. projects the total will reach about 1,070. The university agreed to give The Post an inside look at the review of several transfer applications on the condition that applicants would remain anonymous and identifying details kept confidential.

Coughter, who graduated from U-Va. in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in history, has worked in the admission shop at Peabody Hall nearly 10 years and coordinates transfer admissions. Doug Hartog, U-Va.’s director of admission, also plays a major role in reading applications and, at the final stages, shaping the overall class. All applications get at least two reads. Experts in nursing, architecture and certain other fields also weigh in on admission to those specialized schools.

Transfer requirements are straightforward: Applicants must be on track to complete at least one year of college before enrolling at U-Va., submit all their high school and college transcripts and fill out a form that includes short essay questions. Recommendations from college professors are optional. So are SAT or ACT scores.

What does count heavily is whether applicants have completed in college all or most of the course requirements for specific schools they want to enter. That means, among other things, English composition, social sciences and intermediate foreign language proficiency for arts and sciences. Calculus, physics and chemistry for the engineering school. Economics and accounting for the commerce school. And so on.

College grades matter — U-Va. looks for an average of B or better — though high school grades can also factor in, particularly for applicants in their first year of college.

“There are plenty of students who are not strong in high school, or they have a slow start in college,” Hartog said. “And yet they plug away and improve.” He’s looking for those who excel in second and, sometimes, third chances.

Hartog clicked into an application that seemed on the bubble. The student had a rough time in high school. “Bs/Cs/Ds/Fs,” the first reader noted. The community college transcript started with a D in math. The first reader recommended that the applicant be placed on a waiting list.

Hartog scanned the high school record — “fairly bleak,” he agreed — but homed in on college grades trending upward to A’s and B’s. “They’re really close to having all the area requirements done,” he said. “We’re right there at that B, B-plus average. … I’ve read enough to know this is probably somebody we’d admit.” Ultimately, they did.

This happens a lot, Hartog said. “I probably admit a lot of students that the first readers wait-list.”

In some ways, it is the opposite of his role in freshman admissions. There, Hartog must whittle down the list of recommended admits because the first-year pool is stacked with academic standouts. Here, he is looking for opportunities to lift borderline cases that he believes will thrive. The pool is not quite as deep. B’s or C’s that might sink a first-year application matter much less, or not at all, for a transfer application.

For those on the outside, selective college admissions is an endless mystery, spawning speculation about factors that can tip the scales.

Thirty thousand applicants, one flagship: Inside admissions at U-Md.

For transfers, U-Va. officials say it upfront: Being from Virginia is a plus. Going to community college is a plus. Coping with financial difficulty is a plus. And race is one of many elements in a life story that admissions officers look at in the quest for campus diversity.

As for admission test scores? “We don’t use them really at all,” Hartog said.

The files Hartog and Coughter showed The Post told the stories of, among others, a military veteran in his 50s, an ROTC student, a part-time Walmart cashier and a former high school valedictorian with stellar grades who started at a college that turned out to be the wrong fit. All were aspiring to a life-changing decision from U-Va. Some waxed philosophical about the twists and turns of their educational path.

“Through my college experience thus far, I have been able to discover my strengths,” the valedictorian wrote in her essay. “I no longer view my decision to transfer as a failure or a disappointment; rather, I see it as a continuation of my character development. I eagerly anticipate this new chapter in my life.”

She got in.