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Growing up, Meelod Waheed planned to attend a four-year university. Although his parents didn’t go to college, they taught him about the power of education and expected him to earn a college degree. 

But then his father died, and, when the pandemic hit while he was in high school, his mother lost her retail job. His dream was no longer financially feasible for his family.

Instead, he attended Northern Virginia Community College, nearby, in hopes of earning an associate degree in computer science and transferring to a state college.

He did so well in his first semester that he was invited to join a pilot program that helps high-achieving students transfer to top four-year colleges. Through it, Waheed learned about colleges he knew little about and had never considered for himself. He graduated with an associate degree and, this fall, enrolled as a computer science major at Pomona College, in southern California. 

Waheed was among 372 students who participated in the Transfer Scholars Network pilot, designed by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program to help community college students navigate the complicated transfer process. The pilot program, which began in January of 2021, targets students who tend to have fewer opportunities in higher education – about 70 percent were students of color, 75 percent came from families earning less than $50,000 per year, and about 60 percent were the first in their family to attend college.

The students were connected with admissions officers at four-year colleges and were offered support throughout the transfer process, said Tania LaViolet, director of bachelor’s attainment at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

“The long-term vision is to contribute to a future where any community college student across the nation can see just how far their talents can take them,” LaViolet said. 

Eight community college systems and 14 selective four-year colleges joined the pilot. The community college systems are: 

  • Broward College
  • Community College of Baltimore County
  • Holyoke Community College
  • Indian River State College
  • LaGuardia Community College
  • Miami Dade College
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College 
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • Queensborough Community College
  • San Jacinto College

The partner four-year institutions are: 

  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Johns Hopkins College
  • Cornell University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • Mount Holyoke College 
  • Pomona College
  • Princeton University 
  • Rice University 
  • Smith College
  • Spelman College
  • Swarthmore College 
  • Yale University
  • Williams College

About one third of the students in the pilot program applied to the partner four-year schools; of those, about 20 percent were accepted and 12 percent enrolled. The organization views this admission rate as a successful start because the typical admission rate to these highly selective schools is about 15 percent. Another 30 percent of the students in the program enrolled in four-year colleges with graduation rates of at least 70 percent. Students who did not yet transfer can remain in the program and access all the resources and support until they transfer, said Adam Rabinowitz, a spokesperson for the Aspen Institute. 

Related: A new way to help college students transfer: Admit them to two schools at once

Most students who enroll in community colleges don’t end up transferring to four-year schools or earning bachelor’s degrees, though many set out to accomplish these things. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 25 percent of low-income students who enrolled in community college for the first time in the fall of 2015 transferred to a four-year school, and only 11 percent earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of first enrolling in a community college. The data shows that these rates are higher for students from higher-income families. 

Transferring often presents students with financial barriers (tuition at four-year colleges is typically far more than it is at community colleges), trouble navigating tricky transfer processes, and loss of hard-earned credit hours. 

A 2018 report from the American Talent Initiative, of which the Aspen Institute is part, estimated that about 50,000 high-achieving students from low or moderate income families could be transferring to four-year colleges each year, but do not. This program was designed to reduce that number and help students realize their full potential, LaViolet said.

“I would have probably just assumed, ‘Oh man, I shouldn’t even bother, you know, I’m probably not gonna be able to afford it.’”

Chase Kuhleman, a Transfer Scholars Network student who is now a business major at Cornell University

“Higher ed is really waking up to the diversity, little ‘D’, that the students can bring to their campuses, specifically they bring diversity of experience, they can bring diversity of race and economic position in American life,” said Giuseppe Basili, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which helps fund the Transfer Scholars Network. “When we have a 40-year-old scholar at a place like Williams, for example, we know that they bring a perspective to the classroom that other students who are recent high school grads can’t bring.”

And these students represent untapped potential for colleges struggling with enrollment, Basili said. For many reasons, he said, “this is a really important group of folks to go after.”

Basili said the foundation also offers scholarships to transfer students and tries to pad their experience with some of the things that higher-income students might have, such as paying for a student’s family to visit them during their first year away. (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Related: Strapped for students, colleges finally begin to clear transfer logjam

LaViolet said the students who do successfully transfer out of community college and succeed at selective four-year colleges typically have a close mentor of some sort who suggests to them that they could be a good fit at a selective college. 

“That trusted mentor was really the entry point,” LaViolet said. “So what the Transfer Scholars Network tries to do is to replicate that in a systematic way.”

Professors and advisers at participating community colleges tap students based on academic promise, financial need, life and professional experiences and transfer readiness, and invite them to apply for the program. 

When Waheed was nominated at the end of his first year, he thought, “Why not take all the opportunities?” 

For Waheed, the opportunity to learn about colleges he’d never heard of and talk to admissions officers led him to consider colleges he’d previously assumed would be out of reach, he said. He learned, too, that things like start-up support, which he didn’t know colleges could offer, were important to him, and he wanted to find a school with strong support for transfer students, which he found at Pomona.

Related: Why so few students transfer from community colleges to four-year universities

For their model to work, LaViolet said, the four-year schools must “ensure that they are delivering a campus experience and a campus culture that ensures that their students can thrive.”

Though the support from the Transfer Scholars Network officially ends when the student enrolls at the four-year school, Chase Kuhleman said that people from the program have reached out to check on him and make sure he is adjusting to campus life. 

Kuhleman, now a business major at Cornell University, was raised by a single mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Covid-19 stalled his plans to attend a music school and fulfill his dream of being a professional pianist, he had to pivot. He decided to pursue his interest in business, and earned an associate degree at Delaware County Community College. 

Now, he’s nearly finished with this first term at Cornell, and Kuhleman said he’s getting along well with his roommates, making friends, and enjoying his classes. Without the Transfer Scholars Network, he said he probably wouldn’t be there. 

“I would have probably just assumed, ‘Oh man, I shouldn’t even bother, you know, I’m probably not gonna be able to afford it,’” Kuhleman said.

This story about transfer students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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