Bridging Community and Selective Colleges

Given better advising and financial support, many high-performing, low-income high school students who begin at a community college could transfer and thrive at America's most selective four-year colleges.

Access to a high-quality four-year degree remains stubbornly out of reach, even for America's highest-performing, low-income high school graduates.

A recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report - “Breaking Down Walls: Increasing Access to Four-Year Colleges for High-Achieving Community College Students,” - details the barriers facing transfer students, including a lack of adequate advising, limited financial aid, and confusing credit transfer policies.

Every year in the United States, more than seven million students enroll in community colleges. This group constitutes 45 percent of all postsecondary enrollment. A disproportionate number come from poor families. At present, while the majority of community college students aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree, as few as 12 percent manage to do so.

Costs - real and perceived - drive many choices among even America’s highest-performing, low-income high school graduates. While 44 percent of low-income students enroll in community college after high school, only 15 percent of high-income students do so.

Surprisingly, this income disparity holds true for the brightest students. One in four high school students in the top academic quartile of their class who are from families in the bottom socioeconomic quartile will enroll in a two-year (or less than two-year) college. At the same time, only 10 percent of high-achieving students from families in the top socioeconomic quartile enroll in two-year colleges.

In other words, thousands of bright students with the academic readiness to complete a bachelor’s degree start out at community colleges primarily for financial reasons. This is a crucial component of the larger Excellence Gap facing America.

We do ourselves a disservice as a society by denying gifted students the opportunity to fulfill their potential simply because their academic careers started at a two-year institution. The message for both colleges and education policymakers is clear: where a student began her studies should not ineluctably determine her entire academic career or her life chances.
— Harold O. Levy, Executive Director, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The Breaking Down Walls report coincides with the White House’s America’s College Promise proposal for tuition-free community college education for responsible students.

“Because community college is an on-ramp to a four-year degree for many, particularly low-income and first-generation college students, the White House proposal would enable more students to qualify for jobs that increasingly require a bachelor’s degree,” says Harold O. Levy, executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “While I applaud the White House proposal, four-year colleges must do their part to facilitate transfer to their campuses.  For example, institutional aid offered to transfer students is often much less than what is offered to freshmen entering the same college or university, making the cost associated with earning a four-year degree still unattainable for too many.”

Levy continues: “A recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation evaluation of multiple transfer partnerships found that four-year colleges need to make transferring credit easier, eliminating the need for transferring students to repeat classes and spend more money to earn a degree. For the President’s proposal to succeed, colleges and universities must also provide transfer-specific orientation and post-transfer support for students on their campuses. Only in this way will the President’s proposal actually improve the likelihood of students completing their four-year degree and maximizing their college experience.”

“Finally, as a proponent of high-achieving, low-income students, the foundation is concerned that this proposal may inadvertently exacerbate the ‘undermatch’ issue, meaning low-income students who are qualified to enroll in a selective higher education institution with high completion rates may instead choose to enroll in a community college. The Administration’s efforts to improve college advising for low-income and first-generation college-bound students — as evidenced by the recent White House College Opportunity Summit in which we participated — should help mitigate these concerns.”

Certainly by educating underprivileged students and setting them on the path toward upward social mobility, community colleges perform an essential public service. Moreover, they are succeeding at raising aspirations; more than 80 percent of first-time community college students aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree. Only a little more than one in ten will succeed, however.

Skeptics suggest that this low rate of success stems from the transfer students’ poor academic preparation. But that is not true; even the best-prepared and most talented community college students face similar odds.

The Breaking Down Walls report demonstrates, however, that when given proper support, community college students succeed academically even at the country’s elite colleges.

“We do ourselves a disservice as a society by denying gifted students the opportunity to fulfill their potential simply because their academic careers started at a two-year institution,” said Levy. “The message for both colleges and education policymakers is clear: where a student began her studies should not ineluctably determine her entire academic career or her life chances.”

Through its Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has shown that community college students can thrive at the most prestigious four-year institutions. Cooke Scholars have excelled despite coming from less-advantaged backgrounds. Many, in fact, are the first in their families to attend college, and their families often have incomes below the poverty level. Overall, 97 percent of Cooke Scholars earn their bachelor’s degree within three years, including one in ten graduating from the Ivy League.

“Community colleges can no longer be considered the weaklings of academia, as students who attend them often equal or surpass their new peers at four-year colleges and universities,” said Levy. “It is time to remove the barriers that deny too many gifted community college students the opportunity to gain an education commensurate with their abilities and deprive the nation of their potential contribution.”

Making it easier to transfer from community to four-year colleges, the report concludes, would benefit not just students but also these same institutions of higher education. Community colleges must improve transfer advising, and four-year colleges and universities must both expand their recruitment of community college students with successful academic records and better support them once they enroll.