Improving Diversity at Highly Selective Institutions by Admitting more Students from Community Colleges

Blog Post
Lewis Liu/Shutterstock
Aug. 17, 2023

Stepping onto the grounds of the Northern Virginia Community College nearly four years ago, I was clear about my goal: to transfer to Cornell University and pursue my dream program in public policy. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was trying to achieve something almost impossible. I remember my first week at community college, my eyes shining with hope at the prospect of beginning my college career and excited to discuss my transfer plan with the academic advisor. I found my way into a poorly lit cubicle office where my academic advisor welcomed me with a warm smile. That smile faded quickly when I began to ask questions about the classes I should take to be able to successfully transfer to Cornell. Her words fell like fragile petals, carrying a weight of caution and doubt as she said, “Honey, students from community colleges don't go to Ivy League universities, it's just too hard.” As difficult as it was to hear that, I was motivated to figure out the process so that if I got accepted, I would pave the way for students with similar aspirations.

The author is wearing a yellow t-shirt and jeans, carrying her big backpack standing in front of an academic building.
The author on her first day at Northern Virginia Community College

Fast forward today, I'm a senior at Cornell and will be graduating this December with a degree in public policy. Little did I know then that this journey would entail one challenge after another, from a sheer lack of information, to figuring out the credit transfer and financial aid process. I was able to make it happen, but many students who are just as academically capable and aspirational give up their Ivy League dreams because they lack information or are convinced to believe that they don't belong. I also once thought Cornell was never an option for me until a mentor encouraged me to apply right before I started community college. Students facing similar circumstances deserve better support and resources. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision that bans the use of race-conscious admissions, improving pathways for transfer students to enroll and succeed at the Ivy League and other highly selective institutions could be a way for these institutions to promote a diversified campus.

After that meeting with my academic advisor, I searched Google for transfer acceptance rate to Cornell and was shocked to find that there was little to no data on this. The acceptance rates for transfer students in general were discouraging, with the median acceptance rate for transfers at the Ivy League being below five percent. The statistics confirmed what my academic advisor meant by “it’s just too hard.” It also indicated that there might be very few students who pursue this path. I remember spending hours on end online looking for examples of students at community colleges who attempted to apply to the Ivy League. The internet is flooded with several resources and stories of students sharing their experiences with transitioning from high school to college but barely anything about a student starting at a community college and transferring to a highly-selective four-year institution. Representation is a powerful tool. Seeing a rise in the number of community college transfers being welcomed into the Ivy League campuses and being able to hear and see their stories would have served as an uplifting ray of light in what seemed like an opaque process.

The statistics on transfer were sobering, but figuring out which classes to take to ensure my credits will be counted towards my desired program was another challenge. Elite institutions often lack transparent guidelines for students seeking to transfer credits. As a result, I grappled with the constant fear of credit loss: what if the courses I invested my time, effort, and money in might not count towards my intended four-year degree. I had to be proactive and rely on programs like the Transfer Scholars Network which connects students like me with admissions officers at selective institutions. I also connected with Cornell students on social media who shared course requirements and provided clarity. But I shouldn’t have done all this legwork on my own: selective institutions should be more transparent about their credit transfer policies to make it easier for students to transfer.

One of the largest remaining hurdles was understanding how I would pay for Cornell given the huge difference in price compared to community college. I chose to start my college career at community college rather than a four-year college like my siblings because of the more affordable price tag. During my time in community college classrooms, I sat alongside mothers, first-generation students, low income students, and undocumented students, many of whom were high achieving students but could barely envision attending a selective institution due to their fear of the sticker price. “I never thought that MIT would be an option for me, it never even crossed my mind because to me these selective institutions are expensive anyway and would never want a student like me,” said a student parent whom I recently met who transferred from Laguardia Community College to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Just like her, many students are discouraged by the sticker price and the uncertainty of the financial aid process, especially because schools might prioritize freshmen for financial aid. Today I know that there are tools such as the federal student aid estimator and net price calculator that help students get a sense of how much federal and institutional aid they can expect. Making sure transfer students know these resources exist will encourage them to look beyond the sticker price and apply to selective institutions.

For students like me, looking at higher education from a more equitable standpoint matters. My experience walking into my advisor's office that day and braving through the difficult journey of transferring to Cornell has only reinforced the pressing need for a more streamlined credit transfer process and clearer transfer guidelines. By embracing the potential of community college transfers, highly selective institutions have the opportunity to bridge the gap between privilege and disadvantage, fostering a more inclusive and vibrant academic community.

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Higher Education Access and Affordability