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COVER STORY: Meeting of The Minds

By Paul Bradley
Cooke Foundation Initiative Connects Transfers To Top Colleges

Photo courtesy Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The CCTI study suggests community college transfers can thrive at selective universities if provided the right kind of support.

C  O V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Meeting of The Minds

Cooke Foundation Initiative Connects Transfers To Top Colleges

By Paul Bradley

They are the oddest of higher education bedfellows, the rich kid and his poor cousin, the sun and the moon, two ships passing in the night.

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Community colleges and selective elite four-year institutions are situated at opposite ends of the country’s highly polarized system of post-secondary education: one catering to the privileged elite, the other to the teeming masses, one measuring itself by how many applicants they exclude, the other by how many they admit.

Just 4 percent of students who attend the nation’s selective four-year college and universities come from families in the bottom economic quartile. Community colleges, by contrast, are crowded with economically disadvantaged students who can only dream of attending an elite college and enjoying all of its inherent advantages.

But now some of the doors that have been closed to even the most talented community college students are beginning to crack open due to an initiative by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation which could provide a model for propelling talented community college students to prestigious colleges and universities.

Last month, during a conference in Washington, the foundation released study results of the Community College Transfer Initiative, a five-year effort to promote sustainable, long-term increases in the number of high-achieving community college students from low-income families transferring to some of the nation’s most selective four-year institutions.

The CCTI is part of the foundation’s efforts to recognize exemplary community college students. Its Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship Program names up to 50 scholars each year and awards each up to $30,000 annually to earn their bachelor’s degree, making it the largest private scholarship program fortwo-year and community college transfer students in the country.

Under the CCTI, the foundation gave $30 million in grants to eight elite institutions: Amherst College, Bucknell University, Cornell University, Mount Holyoke College, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California.

Before the initiative, few of the colleges had structured programs to recruit and accept community college students, and the CCTI aimed to change that.

The numbers suggest they did. Over the course of the initiative, the number of community college students transferring to the “elite eight” through the CCTI increased dramatically. In 2007-08, the first operational year of the initiative, the colleges accepted a total of 550 CCTI community college transfers; by 2009-10, the number had jumped to 1,723.

More than statistics, however, the study found that talented community college students — if given the right kind of academic and financial support — can transfer successfully to some of the country’s best colleges and succeed once they get there.

“Talented community college students can thrive at highly selective institutions if assisted with admissions and financial aid applications as well as orientation and academic support,” said Emily Froimson, the foundation’s director of higher education programs. “The CCTI has demonstrated that there are exceptional lower-income students in community colleges capable of succeeding at the nation’s best four-year institutions and that their partnerships with community colleges can identify these students and ensure their success.”

Froimson is quick to add that none of the selective institutions was asked to lower their academic requirements or alter their admissions standards. They were asked, however, to take affirmative steps to recruit and welcome the newcomers to their campuses and provide them with the kind student support services they need to succeed.

“There was a fear at the beginning that these students might not be of the same quality as the colleges are accustomed to,” she said. “But we did not expect the colleges to change their standards.”

The students enrolled in the CCTI, in many respects, reflect broader community college student population, and are atypical of the kind of student normally found at selective colleges.

Some 41 percent CCTI students identified themselves as the first in their family to attend a four-year college. About three-quarters were at least two years older than traditional college students. In addition, 57 percent had worked between high school and community college, 65 percent were white, 15 percent were Asian, 11 percent were Hispanic, 8 percent were African-American and 1 percent were Native American.

Changing Lives

Cathy Burack, a senior fellow at Brandeis University Center for Youth and Communities and a senior researcher of the report, said many of the CCTI students never considered attending a selective college before becoming involved in the initiative.

“Many talented community college students from low-income families would
not consider applying to a selective four-year college or university without encouragement and support,” she said. “The CCTI truly transforms their lives. It offers an opportunity to students whose talents might have otherwise gone unrecognized to reach their potential and set examples for other low-income, first-generation community college students.”

Still, some community colleges transfers said they were initially overwhelmed by the intensity of the work — particularly the volume of reading — required of them at an elite four-year college.

Caraleigh Holverson is a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar who transferred from Triton College in Illinois and is now studying at Georgetown University, where she was named a Truman Scholar last year. Her first year at Georgetown required a huge adjustment.

“It was a tremendous difference,” she said. “It was a matter of switching gears and spending most of my free time reading.”

“Sometimes I felt like I was a square peg in a round hole. There are some preconceived notions about incoming students.”

Aaron Fulkerson graduated from UNC after transferring from Durham Technical Community College in 2002. Today, he is the chief executive officer of MindTouch Inc. and a leading proponent of open source business models and collaborative networks.

Fulkerson transferred before the advent of the CCTI program, and he described the process “as the hardest thing I ever did.

“It took me five days and 40 to navigate the administrative and financial aid processes.”

Eventually, however, Fulkerson got his bearings.

“I thought I was inferior,” he said. “But I totally kicked their (behind).”

While CCTI students benefited from the initiative, so did their campuses, which received a needed infusion of economic and racial diversity, the study found. The community college transfers also became student leaders. On three campuses, CCTI students formed transfer student organizations to raise awareness of issues affecting transfer students and devising ways to address them. CCTI students have won competitive scholarships that were open to all students and acted as mentors to potential applicants enrolled at community colleges.

Steven Farmer, associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill, said CCTI enriched the entire campus community.

“The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation transforms lives,” he said. “The foundation has also transformed the lives of faculty, or bureaucrats like me, of other students and of the institutions themselves.”

But the success stories did not happen by chance. The study found several principles that were critical to the success of the initiative, including institutional readiness and buy-in from the outset at the four-year institution; meaningful partnerships between two- and four-year institutions; and pre- and post-admission academic, social and personal support for students.

Each college took a different approach, depending on their own institutional culture and experience with community college transfers students. For example, using CCTI grant funds, Mount Holyoke funded a full-time transfer liaison to work with Holyoke Community College. The liaison, a graduate of both Mount Holyoke and HCC, identified, encouraged and advised eligible students.

Bucknell maintained regular communications with point people at its five partner colleges. UNC admissions, advising and financial aid staff conducted workshops and information sessions on the campuses of their community colleges.

Now that the grant program has been exhausted, six of the eight colleges have pledged to keep recruiting talented community college students on their own, despite the difficult economic times. That gives foundation officials hope that the seeds they planted at the eight schools will grow and flourish all over the country. That is the message foundation staff gave during the CCTI conference.

“What we have to keep in mind is all of the thousands of thousands of community college students who don’t get this opportunity,” Froimson said. “They don’t go to the elite institutions because they don’t think they can. That’s why we started the CCTI program.”

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Q: What should selective colleges do to ensure the success of community college transfer students?

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