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Elite universities can create better pathways for two-year college transfers

Paying for two years of college is a policy that has moved to the center of the political agenda. It won’t be part of the Build Back Better bill, but the idea won’t go away either, because it’s such a good one.   

Taxpayer support for two years of community college is smart because these institutions build a skilled workforce and offer a solution to America’s social mobility crisis. If everything goes as it should, two-year schools can be a path to a less costly bachelor’s degree. But policymakers and activists should beware because if things don’t go well, community colleges can instead be more like a trap.  

Over 80 percent of community college students say they want to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 15 percent actually do. It’s not because of student quality. Studies that compare similarly qualified students find that there’s something about going to a community college that makes it considerably less likely that students who could have thrived at a four-year college get there.  

Sociologists have shown that this is because four-year colleges put lots of obstacles in the way of community college transfers. At the most basic level, they limit the number of openings for community college transfers, so that a student who could have gotten in as a first-year has no chance of transferring as a third-year.    

Or, they put in place elaborate lists of things students should have done, courses they should have taken, at their community college. This list will be different for every university, so a student applying to six different universities will have had to spend her two years at the community college knowing about, and fulfilling, the requirements for six different possible futures — or guessing at these requirements because most universities do nothing to make them clear.  

The elite universities, the so-called “best” universities in the country, are the worst in this regard. In fact, with their high tuitions, perverse pride in single-digit admissions rates, “legacy” admits, the priority they give to children of big donors, their focus in admissions on costly extracurriculars, not to mention policies like early-decision, which do not allow poorer applicants to compare different financial aid offers and therefore puts out the welcome mat for those for whom price is not an object — it should not be surprising that, with all of these policies and practices, guidance counselors often advise even the most talented low-income prospects against applying to the country’s best universities.  

A student who is deterred by these barriers might decide to start college at a friendlier and more accessible local community college, thinking she can transfer two years later. There are many talented students who, for whatever reason, were not ready for a four-year college right after high school, were daunted by the financial aid paperwork, did not get the advising that would have nudged them in the four-year college direction, or simply need a second chance. But most elite universities do nothing to clarify what they want to see from community college transfers. Trying to transfer to an elite university from a community college is like buying a lottery ticket.  

There is a way to fix this and open important new pathways to social mobility: more elite universities should increase the number of community college transfers by adopting the kinds of policies that many non-elite universities have adopted.  

Some four-year colleges have responded to the transfer problem by adopting policies such as “guided pathways” that tell students in a very transparent manner what they need to do to transfer. Even better, some public four-year colleges, nudged by state legislatures, have adopted guaranteed admission programs that set out the criteria a community college student has to meet to know she will be guaranteed admission to a four-year college. And even some elite schools, like New York University and the University of California at Berkeley, have realized the potential of community college students and moved to establish programs for them. 

These programs are what America looks like when it is living up to its ideals.   

For example, a student from a Chicago family with no savings can go to a community college, follow a set of steps that are laid out in advance, earn good grades, transfer into the engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago through their Transfer Admission Guarantee, and enter the middle class.  

But only some universities have such programs, and the vast majority of the elite universities do not.  These institutions, especially the so-called “best” colleges and universities, should be leading the charge against rising inequality in the U.S. But they are the ones doing the worst at it.    

A four-year college may not be right for everyone, and not everyone has to go to an elite school. Non-elite universities do a terrific job of teaching and preparing students. And elite universities cannot solve the problem of economic inequality alone, since they will by definition educate only a small proportion of students.    

But keeping the elite universities reserved for the privileged gives America a de facto caste system. And socioeconomic diversity at elite universities matters because the elite universities matter: They feed the nation’s political and economic elite and keeping them reserved for the upper classes fragments America into networks segregated by privilege, increasingly polarized and increasingly mistrustful of each other. Every community college student who makes it into an elite institution knits together those networks.  

An easy way to encourage elite universities to think harder about such issues would be to reconsider what it means to be one of the best universities. Should taking students who come from privileged backgrounds and turning them into adults who get privileged jobs be the measure of a university’s excellence? Or could we make the percentage of community college transfers, their graduation rates and their ability to major in what they want to major in part of how we judge and rank a university’s excellence? It’s not hard to take a privileged kid and produce a privileged adult. Much harder is becoming the kind of place that serves as a launching pad for students without the advantages.   

In America, that should be the definition of an “elite” university and that should be what puts a college at the top of the “best” college rankings.  

Monica Prasad is professor of sociology and faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Jeffrey A. Winters is professor of political science and Director of the Equality Development and Globalization Studies program at Northwestern University. 

Tags College Community colleges in the United States Education economics Higher education Higher education in the United States Ivy League

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