For my series of columns on community colleges, I have focused on efforts at the community college level to get students to move on to four-year state schools. I never thought much about their transferring to private colleges, a shameful mental lapse given what I have learned from a new report from the Edvance Foundation.
The Boston-based non-profit — with a Gates Foundation grant building on the ground-breaking work of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation — has been looking for ways to improve the flow of community college students to some of the nation’s most selective four-year schools. The new Edvance study of 414 private colleges, “Strengthening the Transfer Pathway,” shows many colleges are not comfortable with community college transfers. That is particularly true of colleges near the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Most private colleges do take transfers from two-year colleges to fill gaps in their annual admission targets, the survey found. “The more selective the institution, however, the less likely it is to accept transfer students,” it said.
About 20 percent of four-year college graduates start at a different four-year school. That includes President Obama and me. We got our degrees from selective colleges that admitted very few transfers. That has not changed much in the decades since.
The survey reports what I consider good news: most private colleges do not require completion of a two-year degree to transfer.
But the bad news outweighs the good.
“Only a handful of community colleges feed the pool of transfers to private colleges,” the Edvance report said. Evaluators “are inconsistent in their application of academic admission standards” when reviewing community college applicants.
“Academic admission standards vary widely,” the survey said, “and early identification programs to create a more seamless pathway for promising students are limited.” Even if transfers get in, they find that less than half of the private colleges Edvance surveyed offer “tailored orientation programs to transfers.”
That negligence is at odds with the fact that transfers often “persist and graduate at higher rates than the colleges’ standard admissions cohorts,” the report said.
Edvance proposes the creation of a college transfer partnership between community colleges and private four-year schools. The foundation wants to identify early community college students who might benefit most, clean up the messy transfer and credit rules, collect better data and get more financial support for students when they arrive at four-year schools.
The best example of this, the report said, is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative, which began in 2006 at eight selective colleges — Amherst, Bucknell, Cornell, Mount Holyoke, UC Berkeley, Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California.
The 1,100 students in the program had an average grade point average of 3.11 at those schools. Their graduation rates were comparable to the general student body, sometimes higher than 90 percent in four years.
According to the Edvance report, UNC-Chapel Hill used its $1 million grant from the Cooke Foundation to enhance an existing program to enroll students from low-income families. The money in part paid for advisers at three community colleges. They invited promising students to apply to the transfer program shortly after they arrived at community college. Once they were accepted, they were welcomed to use university facilities before they enrolled and were paired with students in the program who already attended UNC.
Contacts between the University of Michigan and community colleges were weak when the university got the Cooke grant. The university organized staff visits to all 31 two-year colleges in the state. They distributed data showing that low-income students could afford to attend Michigan with the resources available.
The program at Michigan continues to operate, after the foundation grant ran out in 2011. Community college transfers at the university show an average 85 percent graduation rate within three years.
Such programs will not solve the problems that plague community colleges in getting most of their students the credentials they seek, but they provide examples of how to improve links to four-year schools of every kind.