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The new faces of Vassar – minority undergraduate transfer students – includes related article

With only a few thousand African American and Latino high school
students scoring 1310 and above on SAT tests, selective colleges often
find themselves — scholarship money in hand — colliding into one
another as they attempt to lure these highly-sought-after students to
their campuses.

“It seemed to me that too frequently we were not pausing to see if
we could develop a [different] constituency,” says Dr. Colton Johnson,
dean of the college at Vassar.

In 1985, Vassar began to do exactly that. The Poughkeepsie, New
York-college joined with LaGuardia Community College — and later, nine
other two-year institutions — to encourage community college students
to become scholars of the first rank

The success of the program is explored in a new report just
published by the American Association of Higher Education. Transforming
Students’ Lives: How `Exploring Transfer’ Works, and Why describes
Vassar’s Exploring Transfer (ET) program.

As of September 1996, according to the report, 399 community
college students — including 191 from LaGuardia — have gone through
the program. Of those, 254 — or 64 percent — transferred to four-year
institutions. Of the transfer students, ninety-seven had earned
bachelor’s degrees; seventy-seven had matriculated at Vassar,
fifty-nine of whom had earned degrees there; and thirty-three had gone
to graduate school, of whom twenty-one had earned graduate degrees.

“We think our results are even better than we publish because there
are some people we can’t find,” says Janet Lieberman, co-author of the

“Our program challenges students with high potential, who might be
unaware of their ability to tap that potential and learn how to
achieve,” says the special assistant to LaGuardia Community College’s
president and cofounder of the program. “The success of so many of our
participants shows that we can expect more from students at community
colleges and that society could benefit if other institutions consider
developing similar programs.”

An Idea, A Grant, and Some Amazing Work

Armed with an idea a grant from the Ford Foundation, LaGuardia
began recruiting students in 1985 who met their criteria: hardworking
good students who, for the most part, had never considered
matriculating at a four-year college — certainly not an elite, liberal
arts, residential college like Vassar. Most of them were older students
of color, many with families and jobs. And most had begun attending
LaGuardia as a way to increase their job opportunities.

The program was expanded to include nine other community colleges
and that first summer a group of twenty-seven students were brought to
Vassar’s beautiful, bucolic campus. They were hurled into what the
report calls “culture shock” by matriculating in two Vassar classes
each of which expected them to write a paper a week. They live together
studied together, and socialized together. They struggled with
homesickness, unfamiliarity, and intellectual exhaustion.

“All were stretched further than they had thought possible,” the report says.

“The amount of work was amazing,” says participant Victoria Brown,
who attended in the summer of 1996 and expects to matriculate at Vassar
this fall. “One man almost went [stark raving] mad. But he did the
work. We all did the work.”

Over the past twelve years, according to Tom McGinchey, head of Vassar’s program, a pattern has emerged.

“The first week is the `oh-my-God’ week, when we had out the
books,” he explains. “The third week is the crisis week, the fourth is
the `I-can-handle-this’ week, and the fifth is the
`I-can-handle-anything’ week.”

Dr. Frances D. Fergusson, president of Vassar, says the ET
students, who now make up about 1 percent of Vassar’s student body, are
often “more serious and harder working” than the typical Vassar
student, who grew up expecting to go to college and may not realize how
important it is to their futures.

“We are not talking about students who were unprepared,” she says.
“I like to tell people, of the first five [ET] students we admitted,
two graduated Phi Beta Kappa and three received honors in their majors.”

A Cost-Efficient Solution

Alison Bernstein, vice president of the Ford Foundation and one of
the people instrumental in funding the program, calls Exploring
Transfer “one of my favorite programs.”

“I’m not saying that all community college students can make the
leap to a Vassar,” she adds, but “there is more talent than has been
tapped. And if you are interested in having a more diverse student
body, it is very cost effective.”

One of the by-products of Exploring Transfer, according to the
report, is the ways it helps faculty members of both institutions. By
spending five weeks at Vassar, the community college faculty get a
chance to renew their commitment to scholarship and the four-year
college faculty get a chance to teach older, more serious students.

Johnson, who is dean of faculty at Vassar, says, “My faculty
colleagues are delighted to have Exploring Transfer students. They
bring a sense of maturity, experience, and a no-nonsense approach to

One of Johnson’s faculty members claims the program made him
realize that he was cutting his regular Vassar students too much slack.
None of the Exploring Transfer students cut class or failed to prepare
for the class, the faculty member told Johnson.

“I use techniques daily that I learned from John Henry [Davis], a
master teacher,” the report quotes Andrew Bush, chair of Vassar’s
Hispanic Studies Department who co-taught a class with LaGuardia’s
Davis. “He is the `ghost in [my] Spanish classroom.’… Exploring
Transfer is not a [just] case of Vassar giving a hand to the community

The program costs about $2,000 per student.

It’s not expensive for what we accomplish,” says Lieberman. “But if
you have thirty kids, you need $60,000. Colleges are unwilling to take
that money out of their operating funds.”

With a $600,000 gift from an alumna and a $300,000 grant from the
Ford Foundation, Vassar began an endowment that pays most of the costs
of the summer program. But Fergusson says she has spent a lot of time
raising money for the “last bits of the program.”

Replications of the Model

Exploring Transfer served as the model for five other programs:
Agnes Scott College teamed with Atlanta Metropolitan College and DeKalb
College; Bucknell University teamed with the Community College of
Philadelphia; Hamilton College teamed with Mohawk Valley and Onondaga
Community Colleges, and SUNY College of Agriculture and Technology at
Morrisville; Lewis and Clark Colleges, teamed with Portland
Community-Technical College. They were all funded with grants from the
Ford Foundation.

Of these, only the programs at Bucknell and Smith continue, and both are considered successes.

Smith has expanded its original program to include a number of
other community colleges, including Miami-Dade Community College and
two tribal colleges — Sitting Bull in North Dakota, and the Institute
of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development in
New Mexico.

The reasons the programs succeeded at Vassar, Smith and Bucknell, Lieberman says, is “money and caring.”

“You have to have people want[ing] this to happen, “she says. “It takes leadership.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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