When transfer students knock, more colleges are opening the door

Why We Wrote This

More community college students are making their way to four-year universities – and helping schools meet enrollment and diversity goals. What might that mean for college affordability?

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Students relax and study on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2016. The Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program helps students in community colleges more easily transfer to UNC and other four-year universities.

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Today, Kolby Hunter is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But like more students today, he didn’t start there as a freshman: He transferred from Alamance Community College. Mr. Hunter spent a year at ACC in 2006 before dropping out and working at a cigar warehouse. He re-enrolled in 2013 and transferred in 2017.

College students who need to save money are more willing to attend more than one school. Universities are increasingly enrolling students who transfer in from two-year institutions and are working to make the move easier. In doing so, four-year schools are paving a more affordable road to a bachelor’s degree.

Given the uncertain future of affirmative action, this cohort of nontraditional students could help bolster campus diversity. Community college students, says Heather Adams, transfer student program director at the University of California, Los Angeles, “are bringing a richness of experience, of point of view, of thought that every university should be exploring if they’re not.”

That’s been true for Mr. Hunter. “You have your teenagers and you have your 25-year-olds and you have some 40-year-olds,” he says. “A program that doesn’t look at age – that’s wonderful.”

As a kid, Janina Millis would sit at the foot of her grandfather’s chair watching Carolina basketball games and cheer at every basket. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was a dream school for her, but as a first-generation student without career plans, she never thought she’d make it there. Instead, she enrolled at Carteret Community College in Morehead City, N.C.

But thanks to the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP) Ms. Millis didn’t stay long. She transferred to UNC last fall and plans on pursuing a dual-degree master’s program in mass communications starting next year.

Millis’ path isn’t uncommon – and it’s growing more popular across the country. Universities are increasingly enrolling students who transfer from two-year institutions and are working to make the move easier. In doing so, four-year schools are paving a more affordable road to a bachelor’s degree. And given the uncertain future of race-conscious admissions, this cohort of nontraditional students could help bolster campus diversity outside of affirmative action.

“We have seen a growth in the number of students following that transfer path. The interest among students ... has a lot to do with economics,” says Melissa Clinedinst, associate director of research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

“It’s also a way for colleges to reach a more diverse prospective student pool. It’s in some sense a win-win for the students and the institutions,” she continues.

A financially feasible path

Research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, examining the class entering college in 2011, shows the university transfer rate has continued to climb, now at 38 percent from about 37 percent last year.

This shift may have begun with the recession, which pushed students to avoid the full cost of a four-year degree.

“Since 2008 people are going ‘Well wait, hold on,’ ” says Heather Adams, transfer student program director at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a financially feasible route whether you’re a nontraditional student who needs the flexibility of community college or you’re a student whose family doesn’t have the money to send you to a four-year university.”

C-STEP, in North Carolina, was founded in 2006 with a goal of boosting transfer enrollment. In the past three years, it has given every community college student in the state access to an online library of programs and course prerequisites at UNC.

“They’re not wasting time or money in preparation for a particular degree,” says Rebecca Egbert, senior assistant director of admissions and C-STEP program director at UNC, who has seen steady growth in transfer enrollment.

The University of California and California State University systems, which have networked with community colleges since 1960, share this approach. The UC systems’ Center for Community College Partnerships hosts summer intensive programs and campus visits to help transfer students – who make up about 40 percent of most incoming classes at the UC schools – see themselves at a four-year university.

Efforts to simplify the process have picked up across the country. The Interstate Passport, a three-year-old initiative, links 28 two- and four-year colleges in 10 states with general education curricula whose credit transfers easily between schools.

More universities might make similar agreements depending on the results of two lawsuits at Harvard University and UNC over race-conscious admissions. UNC presents C-STEP as one example of a race-neutral diversity initiative it already uses, but if courts ultimately block affirmative action, experts say, it may rely on the program more heavily.

Already, 88.7 percent of colleges say transfer students are considerably or moderately important to fulfilling enrollment goals, according to NACAC. And about 36 percent of students in public two-year institutions are African-American or Latino, compared with 24 percent and 20 percent at public and private nonprofit universities respectively, according to the College Board.

‘A richness of experience’

But diversity in community college goes beyond race. The average age is 28. Parents, and students who are military veterans, enroll in higher proportions.

Community college students, “are bringing a richness of experience, of point of view, of thought that every university should be exploring if they’re not,” Ms. Adams says. She herself transferred to UCLA from Santa Monica College, a community college, after working as an actress for 17 years.

That has certainly been true for Kolby Hunter, a senior who came to UNC from Alamance Community College in Graham, N.C. He spent a year at ACC in 2006 before dropping out and working for nine years at a cigar warehouse. He re-enrolled in 2013 and transferred in 2017.

“You have your teenagers and you have your 25-year-olds and you have some 40-year-olds,” he says. “A program that doesn’t look at age, that’s wonderful.”

But only 14 percent of students who aim to transfer to a four-year university from community college actually make it. And while these transfers have increased significantly for less selective schools, they’ve decreased slightly for the most selective universities, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. UNC and UCLA, selective schools with strong transfer enrollment, remain exceptions – though that might be changing.

Even so, the steady increase in community college transfers is progress to Millis. Now, the dreams she had as a kid are starting to feel real.

“I really feel like now I’m able to wear my Carolina blue with pride,” she says.

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