A welcome attention to the transfer

I was comforted to see this reflective piece in the Washington Post about students transferring to highly repressive schools. It’s worth reading on its own, but the article also suggests a lot more than it says.

It highlights a few key points: transfer student admission percentages are often higher than first-time students, pools are often more diverse, standardized tests matter less when they matter at all, and students who have succeeded at the college level can cancel uninspired performances in high school. All true. In the spirit of “yes, and…”, I will add a few points.

The article mentions in passing, but does not dwell on, the difference between transfer students who start at community colleges and those who start at other elite four-year schools. A student moving from, say, Sarah Lawrence to Bennington or vice versa had already passed the bar of selective admission at the first institution. A student who transfers from Holyoke Community College to Mount Holyoke College – we had a strong pipeline – may not have it. The latter student may have a much less traditional background, but likely has a college-level record of achievement to fall back on.

This is one of the best aspects of open door admissions policies. They are based on a kind of epistemological humility: we do not know precisely who will succeed in college and who will not succeed until we are shown it. As a result, we give everyone a chance. A student graduating from a good community college with a good average is a great bet to succeed at the next level. As Josh Wyner said in the WaPo article, nothing predicts success in college better than success in college. Sometimes the students who do well here didn’t do as well in high school, for a whole host of different reasons. Here they can hit the “reset” button and show off what they are actually capable of.

I have personally seen students do this. A student I met several years ago nearly dropped out of high school due to relentless gay bashing. The harassment and bullying got so bad that he simply stopped going to school, which had predictable effects on his grades. He enrolled in HCC’s Gateway program, which allowed high school students who needed a fresh start to take high school classes on the community college campus. He said he was scared at first, but soon found the college campus was safe. When he was able to relax and just focus on his work, instead of always watching his back, his grades jumped and he got excited about school again. In his case, it was never about “merit”, whatever that means. He just needed an environment in which he could be himself. Once he got it, he ran away.

Sometimes mature students show up at community college after having relatively tough high school careers years ago, but they’ve matured in the meantime and absolutely crushed it here. These students make excellent transfer candidates. Academic late bloomers are real.

The article doesn’t dwell on that, but it logically asks the question of what “merit” means if students who would never have walked through the front door at 18 have few problems at 20. . If transfer students are succeeding at comparable or higher rates than native students – and I’m told they are – then to what extent are the fine distinctions that separate the top five percent who enter Brown from the top five percent that do not exactly predict? We can’t help but wonder.

From a student perspective, starting at a community college can have a few advantages. It’s almost always cheaper, especially if they live at home. Freshman classes also tend to be much smaller than at flagship state universities. At Rutgers, when I was a teaching assistant for the introductory political science course, the course had 300 students; the actual discussion was mainly reserved for the “recitation” sections led by the teaching assistants. At Brookdale, the same class is capped at 32 and rarely reaches that. It is much more likely to be around 20 years old and taught by an experienced teacher. And at this level, we don’t believe in the “kill them” theory of education; a student who wants to succeed and who makes an effort will find one green light after another.

(Pro tip for students starting here who want to transfer later: complete the associate’s degree before transferring. You’ll get more of your accepted transfer credits and you’ll save a lot of money.)

From a receiving institution’s perspective, strong community college graduates arriving as juniors can help offset the attrition of students who entered straight out of high school. And these students come with a track record of passing college requirements. They showed they know how to do it.

In political discussions, community colleges are often reduced to vocational training centers. It is a mistake. Yes, of course, professional training programs matter a lot. But the transfer function is also real and important. To the extent that public higher education institutions in any given state function as a sort of ecosystem, formally or informally, community colleges are key players in ensuring access and diversity within flagships. Given how much we talk about student loan debt, you’d think the transfer path would be more visible. It should be.

So, kudos to the Washington Post for this one. It was gratifying to see an important subject receive the careful treatment it deserves.

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