Why Colleges Should Encourage Students to Transfer

California universities have developed a strong model for students who want to move from two- to four-year schools.
Josh Reynolds/AP/The Atlantic

SANTA MONICA, CALIF.—No community college in the state of California successfully transfers more students into the elite University of California system than Santa Monica College, and it doesn't take much time on this sun-splashed campus to see why.

Even before students arrive here, they are surrounded with messages designed to encourage their move to a four-year school after they finish a two-year degree. The school's ubiquitous ads on Santa Monica city buses announce that it is "No. 1 in transfers." Its expansive counseling department nudges students to map out an academic plan for transfer almost as soon as they step on campus. The school's administration has pressed professors and academic department leaders to bang the gong about pursuing a four-year degree. "If you walk into the athletic department," says Daniel Nannini, the coordinator of the school's Transfer Center, "they can talk to you about transfer."

Few states have devoted as much energy as California to improving the transfer process between two- and four-year schools. But it may be an under-appreciated opportunity to broaden opportunity in a higher-education system that many critics fear is evolving into a stratified two-tier structure that does more to harden than dissolve class divides.

Some experts believe that one way to both restrain costs and expand diversity across the higher-education system is to build a sturdier bridge between two-year schools, which enroll disproportionate numbers of low-income, minority, and first-generation students, and the elite four-year universities, where students from mostly white, mostly affluent families still fill most seats. As a Century Foundation task force on community colleges concluded last year, "Among the most promising strategies of reducing stratification [in higher education] is to find ways to connect what are now separate two- and four-year institutional silos."

California is about to provide perhaps the nation's largest test of that proposition. The nine-campus, roughly 230,000-student University of California system already ranks among the national leaders for selective institutions in accepting community college transfers. In mid-May, the University Regents received a report from a task force that concluded the system could do much more to "streamline and strengthen" the transfer process. "They are a national leader on transfers," said Richard Kahlenberg, who directed the Century Foundation community college study. "And now they are trying to go deeper."

The University of California task force, which was appointed last December by Janet Napolitano, the system's new president, pointed to many positive trends in the system's handling of transfer students. Overall, the report noted, 29 percent of the system's entering students in 2012-13 arrived as community-college transfers. That was slightly below the system's goal of one-third but remains "unique nationally" and much higher than the numbers at many schools that are comparably rigorous in their admissions.

Just over half of the admitted transfer students, the study found, were first-generation students, slightly above the proportion in the freshman class. Perhaps most impressively, the study found that 86 percent of transfers graduated within four years after arriving, almost exactly equal to the 84 percent of freshman students who finish after six years.

But other measures were more troubling. The analysis found that one-fourth of all community-college transfers into the UC system came from just seven campuses, with Santa Monica College leading the list (with 783 transfers). Half of the transfers came from just 19 of the state's 112 community colleges—many of them located in affluent areas like Cupertino, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.

That concentration helped explain the incongruous finding that the transfer pipeline actually diminished the UC system's racial diversity. Although African-Americans and Hispanic students make up nearly 46 percent of the state's huge community-college student body, they represented only about 25 percent of those who transferred into UC. That was actually less than their share of the entering freshmen class for the UC system.

To encourage more demographic and geographic diversity, the report recommended that UC build partnerships with the community colleges that send few students into the transfer pipeline; increase its visibility on every two-year campus; broaden its own direct outreach to community-college students; expand the transition services it provides to transfer students; and, perhaps most important, establish more consistency in the course requirements that each UC campus sets for admission.

"We sit with them, we hold their hands, we read their essay."

Santa Monica College's success at guiding students toward four-year institutions captures the opportunity that might be available if more community colleges, in California and elsewhere, stressed a culture of transfer. SMC's former president, Richard Moore, established transfer as a priority in the 1980s, and the school has now developed a thick array of services to encourage it among its 30,000 credit-taking students.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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