Elite Colleges’ ‘Blind Spot’: Low-Income and High-Achieving Community...

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Elite Colleges’ ‘Blind Spot’: Low-Income and High-Achieving Community College Students

By Sydney Johnson     Jun 27, 2018

Elite Colleges’ ‘Blind Spot’: Low-Income and High-Achieving Community College Students

Community college has long been recognized as a cost-efficient ramp into a bachelor’s degree program. Yet many of the most prepared community college students don’t make it beyond their two-year institution. And shots are even slimmer for those looking to transfer to a four-year school with high graduation rates.

Each year more than 50,000 high-achieving and low- to moderate-income community college students—those with at least a 3.0 GPA—don’t transfer to a four-year school, according to research from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. Of those students, around 15,000 have a 3.7 GPA or higher, “the equivalent benchmark for ‘high performance’ predominantly found in the high school student college match literature,” the report reads.

High-performing four-year institutions are particularly guilty of ignoring successful community college students from low-income backgrounds. Specifically, the report looked at 290 colleges and universities that graduate at least 70 percent of students in six years. And these institutions enroll far fewer transfer students than four-year institutions with lower graduation rates.

College transfer stats on a national level are not encouraging. The report shows 80 percent of community college students enter saying they intend to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 14 percent of them receive a bachelor’s within six years.

From 2014 to 2016, the average fall enrollment for transfer students at schools with at least a 70 percent graduation rate was only 18 percent. Across all four-year institutions, that average is 32 percent.

“[High-performing] institutions have historically enrolled fewer transfer students than their 4-year peers,” says Tania LaViolet, a co-author of the report. “This is making the case that there is a rich talent pool of community college students who are not seeking opportunity at these schools.”

So why don’t high-achieving community college students find their way to high-performing four-year schools?

That question is familiar to Rebecca Egbert, senior assistant director of admissions at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The university boasts a 91 percent six-year graduation rate for its 18,800 undergraduates. But a small portion of that student body—200—are transfers from community colleges each fall.

Egbert says students often don’t transfer due to financial barriers and other familial obligations. Students “may feel obligated to families or don't feel like they can leave home,” she adds.

“They may be nervous about financial aid, and many are first-gen and may not have had access to someone to talk to them about why it's important to move on.”

LaViolet believes community colleges need to better prepare students for four-year universities and bridge information gaps for students who don’t know the opportunity exists. And four-year universities, she says, need to communicate that they are a place where community college transfer students are welcome and able to succeed.

“Four-year universities] were built for traditional students who enter into the first year,” she says. “It signals to transfer students when you have policies and practices tailored to their needs that you want them.”

Charting New Pathways

The number of community college transfers entering UNC Chapel Hill is creeping up, largely because of an initiative called Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP).

Launched in 2006, the university program involves 10 partnerships with local community colleges. Students apply and are selected based on need and academic achievement to receive guided support—such as one-on-one advising and attending social and cultural events on the university campus—on their journey through community college.

“Regardless of where an institution lies, strong partnerships with community colleges are critical to opening up opportunity to community college students,” says LaViolet.

Currently 186 community college students are enrolled in C-STEP, which admits students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Thirty percent of students in C-STEP qualify for the university’s need-based aid program, Carolina Covenant, which targets undergraduate students whose family income is at or below twice the federal poverty level.

Egbert claims those who have gone through the program so far have an 86 percent graduation rate. Though the university has seen an uptick in the number of community college students enrolled, Egbert says the issue remains an uphill climb.

“I think it’s getting better. If more institutions are out there talking about the benefits of a 4-year program, I think we will continue to see more students who are interested,” she says. “Do I think it solves the problem? No. But we are working on it and have a lot of work to do. It takes a while for the program to take hold.”

Along with UNC Chapel Hill, the report also looks at examples of how other institutions are creating policies and pathways to increase community college transfers.

It also offers a financial nudge for why four-year institutions should tap into this group of students.

Due to the shorter time it takes transfer students to complete a degree, researchers estimate that institutions will have to spend less on financial aid to support these students compared with traditional first-year students. The report reads: “At both public and private institutions, community college students can be enrolled for about three years before the cost in financial aid equals that of a traditional student.”

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