Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity & Democracy Volume 11, Number 2  

Diversity & Democracy
Volume 11,
Number 2

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About This Issue
Featured Topic: Shared Futures
Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community
Socks, Trains, and Wheelchairs: Service Learning as the Vehicle for Teaching Diversity
Partnership in Teaching and Learning: Combining Critical Pedagogy with Civic Engagement and Diversity
Intercultural Experiential Learning for the Engaged Global Citizen
Promoting Inclusive Access and Success through Community Engagement
Barriers to Civic Engagement for Undocumented Students
A Citizen within the Global Community
Campus Practice
A City Learns its Civil Rights History while a University Learns New Ways to Engage Students
Borders and Boundaries: Human Rights and Social Justice in a Transnational Context
Research Report
Advancing an Equity Agenda through Institutional Change
And More...
In Print

Advancing an Equity Agenda through Institutional Change

By John Saltmarsh, director, Glenn Gabbard, associate director, and Sharon Singleton, senior program and research associate—all at the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE), University of Massachusetts–Boston

Barriers Facing Low-Income Community College Transfer Students

When considering their options after high school, some low-income students are unaware of the culture of higher education or financial aid possibilities. Others soon acquire the adult responsibilities of work and family and will not consider higher education as a viable choice until later in life.

Once in the community college setting, many high-ability students commit themselves to their academic work. However, these students’ academic support can be somewhat random and often depends on the personal involvement and guidance of faculty members, similarly aspiring peers, and supportive programs.

Having matriculated to a highly selective four-year institution, students find that the pace and volume of work has increased dramatically. They must be assertive self-starters who know what questions to ask and where to find the answers. However, these students often distrust their own abilities.

Low-income students are hungry for the educational experience that an elite institution can offer, but they find it hard to picture themselves in that setting. These students have gained practical experience in the world that may go unrecognized by the culture of elite institutions.

—Adapted from Practices Supporting Transfer of Low-Income Community College Students to Selective Institutions

In recent years, colleges and universities have renewed their deep commitment to equity and access for all students by embracing the concept of “inclusive excellence” (Milem et al. 2005). Thanks in part to this framework, institutions are welcoming new populations, including economically disadvantaged students, and recognizing the valuable talents and perspectives these students bring to higher education. Yet as few as 1,000 low-income community college students enroll in highly selective four-year institutions each year (Dowd and Cheslock 2006), despite the fact that these students graduate at the same rates as students who enroll as freshman at four-year institutions (Melguizo and Dowd 2006).

To address this pressing concern, the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE) at the University of Massachusetts–Boston collaborated with the Center for Urban Education and the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California to initiate the research component of the Community College Transfer Initiative (CCTI) study.1 The CCTI study examined the route that low-income students take to elite institutions. Through its participation in the CCTI, NERCHE and its partners sought ways for institutions to more fully embrace transfer students’ academic and social assets.

In keeping with NERCHE’s focus on organizational change, our research focus for the CCTI study considered the structures, policies, and practices that support or impede the transfer of talented low-income community college transfer students to highly selective settings. NERCHE researchers conducted site visits to eight highly selective colleges and universities and the community colleges with whom they partner. We interviewed practitioners to determine what programmatic features were critical to the ongoing identification, recruitment, orientation, and support of community college transfer students.

Recommendations for Facilitating Transfer Success

NERCHE’s contribution to the CCTI study—“Practices Supporting Transfer of Low-Income Community College Students to Selective Institutions: Case Study Findings”—identifies six specific practices that increase transfer access and success:

  • Institutional commitment to ongoing transformation: Colleges and universities should reinvent their practices and policies so that they are consistent with an institutional commitment that sees equity and access as intrinsic to success.
  • Leadership at multiple levels: Leaders at all levels of the institution should exert their respective authority to change policies and practices oriented to low-income student populations.
  • Student-centered practices: Highly selective colleges and universities should adopt pedagogical strategies that are inclusive of diverse learning styles and provide ongoing student support.
  • Financial aid: Universities and two- and four-year colleges should assess current financial aid policies to determine whether these should be modified so that they do not disadvantage low-income community college transfer students.
  • Professional development: Community colleges should provide faculty with opportunities to explore practices in advising and pedagogy that best prepare students for coursework at four-year institutions.
  • Evaluation: Evaluation should document ongoing initiatives focusing on recruiting, admitting, orienting, and providing support to community college transfer students.

Increasing Transfer Access: CCTI Study Findings

The CCTI study identified key recommendations for community colleges and highly selective institutions wishing to increase transfer access:

  • Institutionalize the perspectives of transfer students in recruitment, admissions, financial aid offices, and on curriculum committees by including former transfers in administrative and faculty roles or by asking current and prospective transfers to inform the work of those offices or committees based on their experiences.
  • Support programs and people that create trusting community environments and provide “extra mile advising” to transfer students.
  • Provide institutional aid in equal amounts in the financial aid awards of transfer and native four-year students through endowed scholarships dedicated to transfer students. Announce the award of these scholarships and the accomplishments of award winners through extensive media publicity to enhance the cultural and informational aspects of this financial commitment.
  • Conduct data collections, program evaluations, and assessments of participation and academic performance in transfer programs to ensure extra resources intended to expand access are directed to socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

—From Alicia C. Dowd, Estela Mara Bensimon, Glenn Gabbard, Sharon Singleton, Elsa Macias, Jay R. Dee, Tatiana Melguizo, John Cheslock, and Dwight Giles, Transfer Access to Elite Colleges and Universities in the United States: Threading the Needle of the American Dream—The Study of Economic, Informational, and Cultural Barriers to Community College Student Transfer Access at Selective Institutions, 2006 (reprinted by permission of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation)

Combined with the overall findings of the CCTI study (see sidebar), these guidelines constitute a comprehensive set of recommended practices for promoting transfer access for low-income community college students. By implementing these informational, cultural, and structural changes, community colleges and their partner four-year institutions can improve climates and opportunities not only for low-income community college transfer students, but for all stakeholders in their communities.

Our work is not yet complete. On the basis of the findings from the CCTI study and with the funding of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, NERCHE initiated Project Compass in 2007. Project Compass aims to improve the retention and success of underserved students through grants to six New England campuses. With the support of these grants, cross-functional institutional teams coordinate and carry out inquiry-driven, evidence-based research aimed at determining effective strategies for addressing retention and success of underserved students. NERCHE connects these individual campus-based teams through learning community meetings and disseminates their findings to a broader audience. The project thus aims to take the CCTI study’s findings to the next level, improving the effectiveness of institutions in the retention and success of underserved students.

For more information about NERCHE’s programs and projects, visit www.nerche.org. To read the full CCTI report, Transfer Access to Elite Colleges and Universities in the United States: Threading the Needle of the American Dream, visit www.jackkentcookefoundation.org/jkcf_web/content.aspx?page=1493126


Dowd, A. C. and J. Cheslock. 2006. Community college transfer students at selective colleges and universities in the United States: An estimate of the two-year transfer population at elite institutions and of the effects of institutional characteristics on transfer access. In Dowd, A.C., et al. www.jackkentcookefoundation.org/jkcf_web/Documents/Section%20II.pdf

Dowd, A.C., E. M. Bensimon, G. Gabbard, S. Singleton, E. Macias, J. R. Dee, T. Melguizo, J. Cheslock, and D. Giles. 2006. Transfer access to elite colleges and universities in the United States: Threading the needle of the American dream—The study of economic, informational, and cultural barriers to community college student transfer access at selective institutions. www.jackkentcookefoundation.org/jkcf_web/content.aspx?page=1493126

Gabbard, G., S. Singleton, A. C. Dowd, E. M. Bensimon, J. Dee, D. Fabienke, T. Fuller, D. Giles, E. Macias, L. Malcom, A. Márquez, D. Pak, and T. Parker. 2006. Practices supporting transfer of low-income community college students to selective institutions: Case study findings. In Dowd, A.C., et al. www.jackkentcookefoundation.org/jkcf_web/Documents/Section%20IV.pdf

Melguizo, T. and A. C. Dowd. 2006. National estimates of transfer access and baccalaureate degree attainment at four-year colleges and universities. In Dowd, A.C., et al. www.jackkentcookefoundation.org/jkcf_web/Documents/Section%20I.pdf

Milem, J. F., M. J. Chang, and A. L. Antonio. 2005. Making diversity work on campus: A research-based perspective. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


1. The research component of the CCTI was sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in partnership with the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The other components of the CCTI include grantmaking, a national conference, and evaluation to inform policy change.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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