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Community college transfer
The University of Mount Olive in North Carolina, which recruits community college graduates. Credit: University of Mount Olive

Adam Brown started his higher education at a community college in his home state of North Carolina. By the time he was ready to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, however, he found that public universities there wouldn’t accept those credits.

Brown was now in his mid-30s, with a family and a job at a company that manufactures parts for light-rail electric trolley buses, which had agreed to pay for him to go back to school. But the institutions said his earlier credits were too far out of date.

He found a solution in an unlikely place: the University of Mount Olive, a private, nonprofit liberal arts college in Mount Olive, North Carolina that went out of its way to pursue him.

“They provided everything I had a question about,” he said. “Even when I made it clear that my employer was covering it, they worked to see what they could do to reduce the costs. They just made every effort to make it easier,” including accepting almost all of his community college credits toward the bachelor’s degree in business management he’s scheduled to receive next year.

Transfer students like Brown aren’t just finding their credits suddenly being accepted by small, private colleges and universities that once turned up their noses at them; as the number of conventional high school graduates begins to slide, they’re being actively—even aggressively—recruited.

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Some private colleges have opened offices on community college campuses. Many are working with community colleges to align their course requirements. Others have started “degree completion” programs that meet at night and on the weekends, where working graduates of community colleges like Brown can earn bachelor’s degrees.

“We are looking for additional markets, and the community college student is one of those.” Ben Leslie, provost, Gardner-Webb University

“Community colleges serve almost 50 percent of the students, so why wouldn’t they want to get a chunk of that?” asked Martha Parham, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. “Just by sheer numbers, it would make sense that [private colleges] would start to reach out to those students.”

Especially considering that college enrollment has been falling for more than three years, a particular problem for small, private institutions that are heavily dependent on tuition and are struggling to find enough students who can afford to pay it.

“Private colleges are very concerned about their markets,” said Ben Leslie, provost at Gardner-Webb University, in Shelby, North Carolina, which also goes after transfer students from community colleges. The closing of one such college, Sweet Briar, in Virginia, was “the canary in the coal mine” for schools like his, said Leslie. “So we are looking for additional markets, and the community college student is one of those.”

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Now the Council of Independent Colleges, or CIC, which represents 750 private, nonprofit colleges and universities, has quietly begun a national initiative to increase the number of community college graduates transferring to its member schools.

It hasn’t always been this way. Although Gardner-Webb, Mount Olive and a handful of other private, nonprofit institutions have long histories of enrolling community college transfer students, federal figures show that most have shut the door in their faces, refusing to accept the credits they’ve already earned.

Fifteen percent of community college students who transfer lose nearly all of their credits in the process, costing them precious time and money, one study found. Another third lose a significant proportion of their credits. In all, students who transfer from any kind of college or university to another lose an average of 13 credits when they do, and nearly 40 percent get no credit for the work they’ve already completed, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Those are among the reasons that only 15 percent of students who start at community colleges go on to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, even though more than 80 percent of them say they plan to, the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found.

Related: Stopping the clock on credits that don’t count

Calls to change this “have grown to a crescendo now, where people are realizing it’s a real disservice not just to our community college students, but to our country,” Leslie said. “We’ve got so many students who start a college career and never finish.”

Fifteen percent of community college students who transfer lose nearly all of their credits in the process.

Students who move to private, nonprofit universities and colleges in particular see fewer credits come with them than those who transfer to public universities, the research on this subject has concluded.

Most private colleges, when asked if they accept transfer credit, “will say, ‘Of course we do,’ ” said Leslie. “But in practice, once you get past English 101 or Econ 101, if there was the slightest difference between the community college class and the course that was offered at the four-year school, the faculty will say, ‘Oh, that didn’t do what we do, so we’re going to require you to do it over.’ ”

There’s “a little bit of snobbery, that anyone coming from community colleges is not as good a student,” said Rich Ekman, president of the CIC —a perception he said often proves unfounded.

The image problem works both ways. Community college students who do manage to navigate the complex transfer process are often discouraged by the prospect of high private-college tuition and fees.

“The first thing that comes out is all these stereotypes about what private colleges are,” said Ekman. Community college students, he said, think, “Private colleges are only for wealthy kids, that private colleges are too expensive.”

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Private institutions like the University of Mount Olive now station financial aid officers at the satellite campuses and evening programs where many community college students come to finish their degrees.

“The students that we deal with will say, ‘Oh my god, it’s so much more than when I went to community college,’” said Barbara Kornegay, Mount Olive’s vice president for enrollment. “We know about those perceptions. We work with them to make sure they realize that it is affordable.”

The kind of low-income, first-generation students who often begin at community colleges and transfer to smaller private colleges are also more likely to graduate on time than the ones who go to public colleges or universities, a new CIC report says.

But they remain only a trickle. In Florida, for instance, which is held up as one of the states that has made transferring from a community college to a private institution among the easiest—and where several private colleges have offices right on community college campuses—only 2,001 community college graduates, or barely 4 percent, enrolled in them in the 2012-2013 academic year, the last for which the figures are available, compared to 27,000 who transferred to public universities.

“We have a long way to go,” said Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at the think tank the New America Foundation.

“Of course, we always wish that things like this had happened earlier,” Palmer said of efforts by the private colleges to lure community college grads. “But institutions respond to the incentives they’re presented with. So if the current set of incentives is what’s driving them to help these students get degrees, well, at least they’re doing it.”

For this to really work, the culture needs to change, however, Kornegay and others said.

She has arranged for faculty at community and private colleges to meet, for instance.

“If faculty at a four-year institution have any standoffish idea about community colleges being not so great, they get over it,” Kornegay said. “And if the community college people think, ‘Well my students don’t cut it,’ they’re quickly disabused of that notion.”

Even faculty, said Leslie, “are willing to compromise more today than they were years ago, and accept that these students have an educational foundation to move on to higher studies.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, private colleges will have to recruit from community colleges no matter what their faculty members think.

Said Ekman: “Everyone understands the need to fill seats.”

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