From community college to top four-year schools

What it takes to attract and retain top-notch students from lower economic levels

Center for Youth and Communities researchers Susan Lanspery (left) and Cathy Burack

Talented, low-income community college students can thrive at highly selective four-year institutions if given adequate support navigating the complex admissions and financial aid processes, according to a preliminary study released by a group of Brandeis researchers.

The study, “Partnerships that Promote Success: The Evaluation of the Community College Transfer Initiative," assesses the efficacy of a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation initiative that helped eight selective colleges to identify, attract and retain talented, underprivileged community college transfer students between 2006 and 2010.

The assessment of the program was carried out by a group headed by Cathy Burack, a senior fellow for Higher Education at the Center for Youth and Communities, and Susan Lanspery, also a scientist at the center, which is part of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. The study’s final version is due out in December.

The eight participating four-year schools were Amherst College, Bucknell University, Cornell University, Mount Holyoke College, University of California-Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and University of Southern California. Representatives from these schools helped the transfer students apply not only to their own colleges, but freely gave advice on applying to other four-year schools.

None of the universities lowered their admissions standards to accept the community college transfer students.

The study emphasized the disconnect between four-year and two-year colleges. It found that talented, underprivileged community college students do not apply to selective four-year schools if the four-year schools fail to initiate a meaningful connection.

Burack gave an example of the depth of rift that exists between two-year and four-year colleges, even those in close proximity. One group of transfer students came from a community college a mile down the road from their four-year institution. When researchers asked them how many times they had visited the institution’s campus before they enrolled, one student said, “We didn't know we were allowed to.”

For Burack and Lanspery, this incident highlights the importance of four-year institutions and community colleges working together. “The institution could have had open houses every hour of every day, but how can you get your act together if people don’t feel like they can come on the campus?” asks Burack.

According to Burack, that story got the researchers thinking about what to do with students who are talented and motivated enough to succeed at selective colleges, but lack the “college knowledge” necessary to get there. This in turn laid the groundwork for discussion of how to overcome similar obstacles.

These students, says Burack, have what it takes to succeed. What’s been lacking is opportunity. “There are really smart, academically-able students to be found in community colleges who, just because of how their lives went, don’t have access to the path that leads a student to a place like Brandeis.”

What blocks the path for many promising community college students are challenges for which traditional four-year students have parental and cultural support: the college application process, preparing for college interviews, navigating the financial aid process and more. Some of the challenges are simply practical ones: some community college students are parents themselves, or are married or otherwise need to be accommodated outside of a conventional dormitory setting.

Burack and Lanspery found that the four-year colleges that participated in the study have addressed these concerns in a variety of ways. Their study highlights some of the best practices to ensure success, such as helping transfer students apply for additional financial aid to offset the cost of child care, and casting academic support centers in a positive light as places successful students go to refine their skills. Most successful transfer programs had two things in common: a system to help identify transfer students who are struggling academically, and advisers who are specially trained in addressing issues faced by transfer students.

“It was really about saying to a group of students, ‘you can do this!’” Burack said.

For the four-year colleges that took part in the program, the study concluded that the presence of these transfer students on campus paid dividends. They enlivened discussions, bringing their wide-ranging experiences and perspectives into the classroom; some went on to serve as peer mentors; others as ambassadors helping usher transfer applicants through the process; and one community college transfer student went on to become a student body president.

Lanspery says that initially there were those who doubted the benefit of strengthening pathways between two-year and four-year colleges, but she says even they started to change their tune, once the community college transfers arrived on campus. “Skeptics said, ‘I want more of these students!’” she reports. “I think that’s very persuasive.”

What is arguably the biggest strength of the initiative is the life changing effect on the transfer students themselves. Many had not imagined themselves completing college at all, let alone getting a degree from a selective college.

"I had never dared dream this big," said one student anonymously quoted in the study. “[The Community College Transfer Initiative] has expanded the things I thought I could do,” said another. “I see that the doors are not locked.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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