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Community College Transfers Shut Out of Elite Colleges

The doors of the nation’s most selective four-year colleges and universities have begun closing in the faces of aspiring low-income transfer students from community colleges over the last two decades, a new study suggests.

“The Study of Economic, Informational and Cultural Barriers to Community College Student Transfer Access at Selective Universities” found 10.5 percent of students entering elite private four-year schools were transfer students in 1984. But by 2002, that percentage had been cut in half to 5.7 percent.

During the same time period, transfer students at selective public institutions fell from 22.2 percent to 18.8 percent. And now fewer than 1 of every 1,000 students at the nation’s most choosy private four-year institutions is a community college transfer, according to the study.

Students who do manage to transfer are usually atypical community college students from well-to-do families. Making that transfer is an immense task that needs a lot of guidance and leads to culture shock among the unprepared, says Dr. Alicia Dowd, the study’s lead researcher.

“In one of our reports, we described that as border crossing in fact, going from one world to another,” says Dowd, who is leaving the University of Massachusetts, Boston to become an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Southern California in the fall.

“Crossing that border between those two different worlds is easier for students who have a guide whether that’s a family guide, or somebody at the community college or at the elite institution who helps them find their way. Families that are already highly educated are better able to guide their students through that process.”

Of all of the nation’s Black undergraduate students, 47 percent attend community colleges; and 56 percent of Hispanics, 48 percent of Asian Americans and 57 percent of American Indian undergraduates do the same, according to statistics from the American Association of Community Colleges.

The study estimates that of the more than 11,000 two-year transfers who entered selective institutions in the fall of 2002, about 1,000 were from low-income families.

At least one critic questioned the report’s credibility.

The report’s data are too dated (through 2002) to use to “demand changes in an American system of higher education that is actually working both effectively and democratically – especially in today’s climate of high-stakes achievement testing,” wrote Robert Oliphant in an op-ed piece in Education News.

He noted published reports that indicated the University of California is expecting 16,620 transfer students this fall, up 2.4 percent from 2005.

While the transfer door may be opening in California, the study suggests that on a national scale the doors have closed recently.

Dowd says she isn’t exactly sure of the reason for the decline of transfer students in recent decades at the renowned institutions. Nevertheless, she did point to universities increasing focus on keeping their rankings high in best colleges’ lists in sources like U.S. News & World Report.

“I think they’ve become more and more focused on building a freshman class,” Dowd says. “They are very focused on their freshman persistence rates.”

Transfer students are most likely to be welcomed by colleges that have high departure rates from its lower classmen and turn to transfer students for replenishment, according to the study. A 10 percent increase in student attrition is associated with a 5 percent increase in the transfer enrollment rate.

“These findings suggest that transfer enrollment rates are driven by institutional economics more than other institutional values, such as commitment to educational equity and diversity,” the report says. “Thus, it seems that elite institutions have yet to full embrace the value of admitting community college transfer students as a way of increasing the economic and racial diversity of their own student bodies.”

The report indicates that the onus of increasing the access of transfer students isn’t just on the four-year institutions, but its on the faculty and administrators of community colleges as well. Faculty and administrators need to help students navigate through the transfer process, privy them to financial aid resources and champion reforms that will make their transfer easier to these selective institutions. And they need to institutionalize all these practices, as the study found that when they are performed more by accident than by design.

Dowd says she does not think that the number of community colleges students in the transfer highway to the nation’s most revered universities will continue to decrease.

“Due to some states anti-affirmative action policies, there’s a huge concern for the loss of African-American students and Latino students from the most prestigious layers or levels of higher education. (Therefore), there’s going to be increasing pressures for transfers at public institutions and I think those pressures will extend to private institutions as well.”

The study, which examined the opportunities and barriers low-income community college students face in their attempt to transfer to select colleges, was funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Lumina Foundation for Education, and Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

—      By Ibram Rogers

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