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A Pathway to Success

A Pathway to Success

Among Ivy League institutions, Cornell is leading the way in admitting and encouraging community college transfers.

By David Pluviose

With the total price tag of a bachelor’s degree from a top-tier U.S. college or university hovering around $150,000, even some of the most highly sought-after high school graduates are turning down universities like Yale and Stanford in favor of more economical options — community colleges. Skyrocketing tuitions and anti-affirmative action campaigns are turning many elite schools into domains strictly for the wealthy and White, say study groups like U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

But several Ivy League universities are working to counter the trend by offering free tuition to students from low-income families. Harvard University led the way, announcing last year that any incoming student whose family makes less than $60,000 a year would get free tuition. Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has taken its outreach efforts to another level, announcing plans to launch its “Pathway to Success” program this fall. The initiative actively seeks out and provides advising and financial support to transfers from two local higher education institutions — Morrisville State College and Monroe Community College.

Chandra Joos, Cornell’s associate director of admissions and transfer coordinator, says a number of factors, including land-grant status, have driven Cornell’s institutional predisposition to serve the underserved. But Cornell’s mission to remain accessible to students from all economic and social strata stems from the “any person, any study” mantra of Cornell’s namesake, Ezra Cornell.

As a result, one in four Cornell undergrads is likely to have transferred in. Of the transfer students, about 33 percent came from a community college. Joos says that among Ivy League schools, Cornell, “by far, brings in the highest percentage and also the largest number of transfer students each year — particularly from two-year institutions. The transfer population is so small at our peer institutions that not everyone has the transfer coordinator role or title in their job description like I do.”

The Pathway To Success program is funded by a $810,800 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides a host of scholarships for underprivileged students. The foundation places a particular emphasis on helping community college transfers gain access to and pay for a four-year degree.

According to Emily Froimson, the foundation’s director of higher education programs, many community college students “were not either aware of the opportunity or informed of the opportunity to apply to selective colleges.” To help, the foundation teamed up with eight top-tier colleges and universities, including Cornell, to provide $27 million in funds dedicated to helping community college students transition to a four-year environment.

“A lot of these institutions have been focusing on the lack of socioeconomic diversity, yet there has been no discussion about the community college student,” she says. “We want to be sure that students who are able to succeed at these schools have the opportunity to go. And we know that many of the top community college students are qualified, and when given the opportunity, will succeed at these colleges.”

Issues of Access
The issue of access — or the lack thereof — for underprivileged students was a key item on the agenda for the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, as the members indicated in their final report to Spellings.

“We found that access to higher education in the United States is unduly limited by the complex interplay of inadequate preparation, lack of information about college opportunities and persistent financial barriers,” the report says. “We are especially troubled by gaps in college access for low-income Americans and ethnic and racial minorities. Notwithstanding our nation’s egalitarian principles, there is ample evidence that qualified young people from low-income families are far less likely to go to college than their similarly qualified peers from high-income families.”

Commission member and Trinity University professor Arturo Madrid decries what he sees is a higher education system that is increasingly predisposed to “privileging the privileged.” Madrid says the presence of two-year Montgomery College President Charlene Nunley on the commission helped call attention to the struggles of underprivileged students. Nunley discussed “the range of things that community colleges do and how effectively they can do them if given the support, including the support to be able to move their students on past two years and into the four-year institutions,” says Madrid.

“I remember a moment, when you might say it crystallized,” he says. “The then-president of Kalamazoo College, when asked about tuition costs rising, said, ‘We will charge what the traffic will bear.’”

Madrid explains that top private schools are willing to boost their tuitions because they know many families will find the money to send their children there. As a result, the public institutions they compete with must raise their tuitions by exorbitant rates to prove that they are also elite schools.

“Who’s getting left out clearly are those students who don’t have those extraordinary profiles, who don’t have the background and experience to say, ‘OK, that’s within the realm of my possibility,’” Madrid says.

Monroe Community College associate  vice president Anthony J. Felicetti says Cornell’s transfer initiative reflects a larger trend where talented high school graduates shun the elite institutions, opting instead to enroll in community college and transfer down the road. He says the $150,000 or so needed to finance a four-year education at a top-tier university is “completely out of reach” for the average middle-class family.

“I would say that at the more prestigious private schools, you’re looking at an annual budget of between $35,000 and $40,000,” Felicetti says. “Over the last seven or eight years, we’re now seeing many more students who are very capable academically, who can easily earn admission to a four-year college, but who choose Monroe or choose a community college because the cost factor has become such a big issue for them. Much of our enrollment growth over the last decade has been built on the backs of those we call ‘students with choice.’”

Madrid says though Cornell has made a positive stride to increasing access, he’s more concerned about escalating tuitions at less selective schools.

“I don’t think that Cornell has to do that. Within the pool of students that are eligible to get to Cornell and graduate from Cornell, there’s a fairly large pool that they could tap into,” he says.

However, concerning the myriad public institutions that most students attend, Madrid adds, “They’re underfunded, they’re understaffed, the tuition has gone up tremendously and people are having to organize their academic lives around their work lives increasingly. It used to be people organized their work around their college life,” Madrid says.

Felicetti says it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cornell leads the way among Ivy League institutions in opening its doors to community college transfers. “[Cornell] has always been sort of at the forefront with transfers, although this is a little different, with them targeting some community colleges,” he says. “We’re thrilled to be a partner with them on it.”

Cornell regularly holds information sessions on Monroe’s campus, Felicetti says. The university held a forum at a recent presentation to Rochester-area high school students to discuss the myriad opportunities available at the Ivy League school.

“I would say they spent 75 percent of their time talking about the Pathway to Success program, and the benefit that students might have to come to the community college first and then transfer on to Cornell through this program,” Felicetti says. “That is another demonstration of the level of commitment I think that they have. Cornell has put a stake in the ground on this one, and I think they should be commended for it.” 

He suggests that many community college students “have been excluded — maybe not intentionally — based on not only ethnicity, but economics from these prestigious, high-cost institutions.”

Froimson says the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation hopes the grant that funds the Pathway initiative will help break the barriers keeping community college students from enrolling at the nation’s most selective universities.

“We hope that this initiative will increase the awareness of the talent that exists at the community college level. There are signs that it has,” she says. “And we know that since almost half of undergraduates are in community colleges, that this is a necessary pipeline for the elite colleges to tap into, if they are interested in economic diversity.”

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