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How Private Four-Year Institutions Can Pave a Path for Community College Transfers to Postsecondary Success

Administrators, faculty, and staff at selective colleges and universities often assume that transfer students from community college won’t be able to make the grade.

In fact, private institutions are better served by enrolling more community college transfer students, who do as well as—or better than—students who enter as freshmen. They are also more likely to hail from diverse backgrounds as parents, people of color, veterans, and adults, bringing with them the rich life experiences and perspectives integral to a vibrant campus culture. In addition to helping bridge institutions’ longstanding equity gaps in college access and attainment, community college transfers also represent a steady, untapped stream of talent amid enrollment challenges, including competition from alternative postsecondary paths, a projected plateau in high school graduates, and threats to their financial stability. The students themselves stand to benefit from all a private college education has to offer; from generous financial aid and robust on-campus supports to immersive academic experiences and small classes.

But the transfer process is commonly confusing and inefficient for students, especially at private institutions where information about admissions, financial aid, and the campus experience may be less clear or accessible, deterring many community college students from transferring each year. And those students who successfully transfer often face challenges in having their credits accepted and getting the information they need to make the transition. Private institutions committed to expanding their transfer pipelines can ease the way through two essential strategies: improved credit applicability policies and transfer-friendly communications centered around visible, relevant, and comprehensive information; from the time students learn about a transfer destination to the time they graduate and beyond.

Improved Credit Applicability Policies

A growing number of institutions have taken bold steps to revamp their credit transfer policies. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts ensures transfers who meet minimum grade standards in a liberal arts course of study can generally receive full credit toward their degree and major requirements. Additionally, they can earn credits for online courses from accredited two-year institutions, reflecting an imperative to overturn misperceptions about their rigor and quality, especially given an accelerated shift to online instruction. Mount Holyoke and other institutions with more flexible credit rules understand that community college transfers receive a high-quality academic experience that prepares them to thrive in upper-division courses. Encouragingly, a group of New England independent colleges in three states share this understanding, coming together to mitigate the loss of credit.

As an additional means of ensuring transparency around credit applicability policies, Salve Regina University in Rhode Island encourages prospective students to use its transfer credit database to highlight the courses that both have transferred in the past and are highly likely to transfer in the future. In this spirit, Salve Regina also offers every transfer student a formal inventory of the credits they will accept within two weeks of admission. And while private institutions may not accept all of an entering transfer student’s credits, requiring them to spend additional time to complete their degree, Williams College in Massachusetts and Princeton University in New Jersey ensure that transfer students can receive financial aid, access to housing, and other resources for the duration of their time on campus.

Transfer-Friendly Communications

Not only are credit transfer policies unclear at many private, four-year institutions, details on these guidelines, and topics like admissions and on-campus supports, are also difficult for transfer students to find as they navigate institutions’ websites and additional communications channels. Prioritizing improvements in this area are vital given students often base their application and enrollment decisions on the transfer-specific information they can find online. For high-graduation-rate private and public institutions, a website analysis conducted by the American Talent Initiative (ATI) found that 38 percent of admissions webpages from private institutions included references to “community college transfer,” compared to 95 percent of admissions webpages from public institutions. To signal a commitment to transfer students’ success, private institutions can feature spotlights of current transfer students, resources designed to support their needs, data about post-graduate outcomes, profiles of transfer alumni, and above all, messages that indicate transfers are essential to their campus communities.

For example, prospective transfers who land on the transfer website of the University of Dayton in Ohio are greeted with acknowledgments that the transfer process can be confusing, but also, a welcoming message that admissions and financial aid staff as well as current transfer student ambassadors are all available for individual consultations as they navigate this complex journey. The site prominently features links to transfer-specific resources pertaining to the application process, credit transfer, student life and housing, as well as guides for transfers and admitted students.

In addition to providing pertinent information on its transfer admission processes, Baylor University’s “Transfer Guide” offers photos, information on key programs and resources, alumni profiles and academic data that provide a snapshot of campus life and opportunities for transfer students to thrive at the Texas institution. Similar efforts to offer prominent, transfer-focused messaging on its website, centered around clear credit applicability guidelines and academic pathways, positioned Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania to increase its transfer yield by 13 percent in just one year.

The transfer process can be daunting, especially for students without a clear sense of how to navigate the move to a private four-year institution, apprehensive about the cost of such an experience, and deterred by a perception that it may not be the right fit. Providing access to relevant information and clarity around the credits they will accept are two small yet significant steps that private institutions can take to activate the talent of community college transfer students nationwide.

To learn more about the American Talent Initiative and its broader efforts to expand postsecondary access, click here.