How Amherst College Became a Champion for Community College Transfer Students

Each year more than 100,000 community college students transfer to four-year private universities. That’s only about a third of those who started community college in the cohort two years earlier. And only 4,000 of those students enroll in the most selective private universities. We think that number could be considerably higher.

Selective colleges who are hesitant to commit to a transfer program can learn from Amherst College in Massachusetts, which is consistently ranked as one of America’s top liberal arts colleges. Amherst enrolls 10–15 community college transfer students per year (out of approximately 495 new students). It’s a small program but a big commitment to transfers.

The background: In 2010, Amherst was nearing the end of a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant designed to lay the groundwork for a community college transfer program. Despite the challenges of the Great Recession, the campus decided to maintain its commitment.

To explain Amherst’s commitment, Associate Dean of Admissions Alexandra Hurd spoke with the American Talent Initiativewhich strives to expand access for low- and middle-income students to colleges with the highest graduation rates.

Q: How did Amherst become a transfer-friendly college?

A: It starts with President Biddy Martin, Hurd said, “President Martin really pushed us beyond the point of representation and into a conversation about inclusion.” She added that the president hosts transfer students for lunches and tea at her home. “She wants to know what their experiences are and how they navigate campus.”

The Board of Trustees, faculty and staff embody Martin’s commitment to transfer. “They are all committed to learning more about the transfer population, especially our community college and veteran student initiatives,” Hurd said.

Q: You mentioned faculty. What role do Amherst faculty play in the culture of transfer?

A: The faculty recognizes that community college students bring a strong work ethic and different perspectives to class discussions, Hurd said. As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant came to an end, “faculty have been very supportive of the program and expressed how much they appreciate having these students in their classrooms and as part of the community,” said Hurd. “These voices were incredibly influential.”

Q: What strategies have allowed Amherst to successfully enroll community college students?

A: Amherst has found that recruiting and enrolling these students requires a different approach than traditional applicants, Hurd said. Honoring the transfer student’s experience means acknowledging the work the student has done before coming to your institution. Amherst does this in three main ways: training counselors to think from the experience of transfer students, sharing admissions and financial aid information clearly, and being transparent and flexible about transferring credits.

Q: How does Amherst approach credit transfer?

A: Upon admission, students receive a credit assessment that clearly indicates which courses will be transferred, as well as the graduation date, class year, and financial aid program. Because Amherst has no general education or core curriculum requirements, most liberal arts credits will apply to students’ bachelor’s degrees. This is a significant advantage for transfers. (Across the country, transfer students too often find that credits earned at community college don’t apply to bachelor’s degrees, resulting in more time and money being spent at a four-year institution.)

Q: What does Amherst’s support for community college transfer students look like?

A: Along with solid financial aid that covers tuition and more, Amherst provides a sense of community from day one. Students join a cohort of community college transfer students who meet at orientations and events such as barbecues and visits to the campus farm. They have access to the Class & Access Resource Center, which supports first-generation, low-income, transfer, and veteran students. The center hosts a welcome dinner and alumni panels and connects students with jobs and graduate opportunities.

Q: For colleges that may be newer to transfer, what can you say about the investments you’ve made to thoughtfully support transfer students?

A: The needs of many transfer students resemble the needs of other students Amherst hopes to enroll to create an intentionally diverse and inclusive campus community, Hurd said. These include counseling, academic counseling center, writing center, wellness programs, peer counseling, career center, and intensive faculty counseling. Designing a transfer-friendly campus does not require reinventing programs, but rather expanding or slightly revising programs to meet the needs and interests of transfer students.

Hurd stressed the importance of providing a dedicated space for transfer students from community colleges to discuss their shared experiences. By listening directly to students, administrators and faculty can think creatively to address transfer student concerns.

Yazmin Padilla is a Program Associate in the Excellence Program at Aspen Institute College, supporting the American Talent Initiative.

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