Some Welcome Attention to Transfer

I was heartened to see this thoughtful piece in the Washington Post about students taking the transfer route into highly rejective schools. It’s well worth the read in itself, but the article also suggests far more than it says.

It highlights a few key points: admission percentages for transfer students are often higher than for first-time students, the pools are often more diverse, standardized tests count less when they count at all, and students who have shown success at the college level can cancel out uninspired performance in high school. All true. In the spirit of “yes, and…,” I’ll add some points.

The article mentions in passing, but doesn’t dwell on, the difference between transfer students who start out at community colleges and those who start out at other elite four-year schools. A student who transfers from, say, Sarah Lawrence to Bennington or vice versa had already cleared the bar of selective admission at the first institution. A student who transfers from Holyoke Community College to Mount Holyoke College – we had a strong pipeline – may not have. That latter student may have a much less traditional background, but presumably has a record of college-level success on which to rely.

That’s one of the best parts of open-door admissions policies. They’re based on a sort of epistemological humility: we don’t know specifically who will succeed in college and who won’t until they show us. Accordingly, we give everybody a shot. A student who graduates from a good community college with a strong gpa is an excellent bet to succeed at the next level. As Josh Wyner put it in the WaPo piece, nothing predicts success in college better than success in college. Sometimes the students who succeed here weren’t as successful in high school, for a host of various reasons. Here, they can hit the “reset” button and show what they’re actually capable of doing.

I’ve personally seen students do that. A student I met several years ago nearly dropped out of high school due to incessant gay-bashing. The harassment and bullying got so bad that he just stopped going to school, which had predictable effects on his grades. He enrolled in the Gateway program at HCC, which allowed high school students who needed a fresh start to take high school classes on the community college campus. He said that he was afraid at first, but soon discovered that the college campus was safe. When he was able to relax and just focus on his work, instead of always watching his back, his grades jumped and he got excited about school again. In his case, it was never about “merit,” whatever that means. He just needed an environment in which he could be himself. Once he had that, he was off and running.

Sometimes adult students show up at the community college having had relatively checkered high school careers years ago, but they matured in the interim and absolutely crush it here. Those students make excellent transfer candidates. Academic late bloomers are real.

The article doesn’t dwell on it, but it logically raises the question about what “merit” means if students who would never have made it past the front door at 18 have little problem at 20. If transfer students succeed at comparable or higher rates than native students — and I’m told that they do – then exactly how predictive are the fine-grained distinctions that separate the top five percent who get into Brown from the next five percent who don’t? One can’t help but wonder.

From a student perspective, starting at a community college can have a few advantages. It’s almost always less expensive, especially if they’re living at home. The first-year classes tend to be much smaller than at the flagship state universities, too. At Rutgers, when I was a TA for the Intro to Political Science class, the class had 300 students; actual discussion was mostly reserved for “recitation” sections led by TA’s. At Brookdale, the same class is capped at 32 and seldom reaches that. It’s much more likely to be around 20, and to be taught by an experienced professor. And at this level, we don’t believe in the “weed ’em out” theory of education; a student who wants to succeed and makes the effort will find one green light after another.

(Pro-tip for students who start here and want to transfer later: finish the associate’s degree before transferring. You’ll get more of your credits accepted in transfer, and you’ll save a lot of money.)

From the perspective of a receiving institution, strong community college grads coming in as juniors can help offset the attrition of students who entered right out of high school. And these students come with track records of successfully college requirements. They’ve shown they know how to get it done.

In policy discussions, community colleges are often reduced to job-training centers. That’s a mistake. Yes, of course, vocational programs matter a great deal. But the transfer function is also both real and important. To the extent that the public higher education institutions in a given state function as a sort of ecosystem — whether officially or not – community colleges are key players in ensuring access to, and diversity within the flagships. Given how much we talk about student loan debt, you’d think the transfer route would be more visible. It should be.

So, kudos to the Washington Post on this one. It was gratifying to see an important topic given the careful treatment it deserves.

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