Expanding the Community College-to-University Pipeline: Why More Elite Schools Are Embracing Transfers and the 15,000 Annual Community Graduates With 3.7 GPAs

Queen Kwembe, a student in UCLA’s summer transfer program, finds family issues, not academics, the biggest obstacle in completing college (Richard Whitmire)

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

Standing outside a lecture hall on a hot August Tuesday here at the University of California, Los Angeles, Ramses Denis-Romero looks like the UCLA underclassman he longs to be but isn’t yet. Denis-Romero was on campus to attend a six-week summer program for community college students aspiring to transfer to a selective four-year university such as UCLA. His story is similar to those of many of the community college students here on this day: Born in California’s Central Valley, Denis-Romero is the son of a field worker who, over the years, worked his way up to dishwasher at a restaurant and finally, today, manager of a tire store in Tulare, outside of Fresno. It’s a decent job, but Denis-Romero’s father has many less well-off relatives in Mexico who depend on his steady income, so there’s not a lot of money to spare for his son’s college education. That’s how Denis-Romero ended up at the College of the Sequoias, a community college in Visalia. He’s talented at math and science and aspires to be a doctor, but achieving that dream probably depends on winning a transfer spot within the prestigious University of California system. UCLA, in fact, would be the ultimate dream.

For most of his life, Denis-Romero has felt like he’s one step behind. Early in high school he knew little about college, so his lackluster 2.6 grade point average didn’t seem to matter. When he finally figured out the importance of college and learned what it took to land a spot there, he signed up for Advanced Placement courses and boosted his GPA. By senior year, he had an A average, but it was too late to improve his overall high school average much. “I feel like I’m always playing a catch-up game against everyone who has always known what they want to do in life.”

Denis-Romero’s dreams count, but what matters more about these summer programs at UCLA for community college students like him is that they represent the nation’s best shot at dramatically increasing the number of low-income students who walk away with four-year degrees.

Community colleges as a solution for turning around low college success rates for low-income minority students? Sounds odd. Anyone taking a hard look at why so many low-income students fail at higher education is tempted to view community colleges as bad actors. When researching The Alumni, I recall sitting down with leaders from L.A.- based Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and being told that well below 10 percent of their alumni who enter local community colleges end up with a bachelor’s degree. Just to make sure I heard that correctly, I had them repeat the numbers. But as I made my way around the country to visit other charter school networks, I heard similar grim numbers. Community colleges, I concluded, were pretty much dead ends for any student hoping to end up with a four-year degree.

And California community colleges? Among the worst. In 2017, California’s Campaign for College Opportunity released its “Transfer Maze” report saying it took an average of 6.5 years for a community college transfer student to earn a bachelor’s from a University of California campus, seven years from a California State University campus. Additionally, those transfer students pay an extra $36,000 to $38,000 to get their degrees. “It took me longer than it should have to transfer because I was taking all these courses unaware that they weren’t transferable to a U.C. system,” said one student quoted in the report. Plus, community colleges in California, and across the country, are famous for pushing black and Hispanic students into remedial courses that throw them off a degree-earning track.

It wasn’t until I came across the American Talent Initiative that I began to see things differently. What Dan Porterfield started doing at Franklin & Marshall College is going national with the initiative, which Porterfield will promote as the new president of the Aspen Institute. Aspen has partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Ithaka S+R, a higher education consulting firm, to run the program. The goal: graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students at some 290 colleges and universities with excellent college success records — those that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students in six years. Closely connected to the effort is Bloomberg’s CollegePoint, which offers free college counseling to students who lack it.

The initiative focuses on a lot more than community college transfers, but the community college transfer system might be one of its most promising ideas. To explain why, Josh Wyner, who runs the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, points to the “Hoxby kids,” the now well-known group of students uncovered by economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, from Stanford University and the University of Virginia, respectively. They found that the majority of high-achieving, low-income students never apply to even a single competitive college.

There are approximately 12,500 high school students with a grade point average above 3.7 and high test scores who are “mismatched” every year, applying to colleges well beneath their potential. Those students, the “Hoxby kids,” have since been targeted by top colleges and universities trying to make amends. But in fact, there’s a bigger potential change afoot from promising community college students. “There are 15,000 graduating community college students every year with a 3.7 GPA,” said Wyner, “and they’re not just mismatched; they’re not matched at all. They’re not going to a four-year college.” Find a way to pull those talented students into top colleges, the places likely to ensure they will come away with bachelor’s degrees, and suddenly you have a surge in the number of low-income minority students winning degrees. You have The B.A. Breakthrough.

Elite UCLA embraces community college transfers

The champion of transfers here at UCLA is a ponytailed, earring-wearing experienced educator, Alfred Herrera, who spent 18 years in the undergraduate admissions department before founding the Center for Community College Partnerships. What started out small has grown to the point where the partnership now runs 11 programs, ranging from one day to six weeks, and in the summer of 2018 was serving 700 students. At UCLA, they learn the ins and outs of transferring, get a taste of college academics and, while staying in college dorms, a feel for what life could be like from inside a prestigious university. In addition, UCLA has developed partnerships with four local community colleges focused on increasing access to four-year universities, and will be expanding to other community colleges in the near future. These partnerships are focused at all levels — administrative, faculty, staff, and students — and are aimed at creating strong transfer programs to open the pipeline for deserving students.

Community colleges, says Herrera, are an important conduit for students, “particularly when you look at students who don’t have equal access to college prep. So, if we’re looking for students to come from inner city schools, students who don’t have the preparation they need to figure out how to get to a university, this is a good way.” Herrera gets plenty of support from UCLA chancellor Gene Block, who has embraced the American Talent Initiative mission of growing the enrollment of low-income students.


“One thing about being a first-generation student is that every lesson learned is learned the hardest way possible.”

Queen Kwembe, a student in UCLA’s summer transfer program

The goal in this community college initiative is to give these promising students a leg up to transfer to a top-run university, part of the University of California system, maybe even UCLA or Berkeley, the premier campuses. Usually, if these community college students transfer, it’s to the less prestigious California State University system (Cal State). What’s playing out appears to be working: Among students who participate in the summer program, the admittance rate to UCLA is 65 percent. That compares with its overall admittance rate of 25 percent.

What was striking about the students I interviewed, who were part of a STEM group, is that handling the more advanced academics at a place such as UCLA — the concern I was expecting — was the least of their worries. Classwork they get. Juggling chaotic personal lives — that’s the real challenge. Take Queen Kwembe as an example. A native of South Africa, she moved to the United States six years ago and graduated from high school in Anaheim, California. She tried Hawaii Pacific University but transferred to a California community college, Cyprus College, after just one year, in part for financial reasons and partly because she wasn’t sure what to study. “I didn’t want to waste the time and money.”

Kwembe told me what the others said, in different words. In high school, they didn’t know one college from another. Just like Denis-Romero, Kwembe feels she was always playing catch-up. “One thing about being a first-generation student is that every lesson learned is learned the hardest way possible. It’s like you hit a bunch of brick walls before you realize that the door is right over there. It’s like trying to find your way in a dark room.” Now, however, she gets it: Going to a top university, she realizes, is her best pathway to a bright future.

The biggest impediment she faces? Not academics, but family issues. Kwembe and her sister help support both her father and an unstable brother. Home, she says with a deadpan voice, “is not a conducive learning environment.” Looking at the lives of some of her friends who come from two-parent households with few financial problems, such stability seems a world away. “Having to pay rent and focus on school and what you want to achieve is challenging.”

Another student there that day was Estrella Rodriguez. She grew up in Cudahy, a small, very high-poverty city in Los Angeles County. Her father died when she was 13. “There was a lot of gang violence in my community, which was distracting, but after high school I went to Cal State L.A. for one year. I had no mentoring; I didn’t know what classes to take. I was just lost.”

So Rodriguez dropped out of college and began working at a donut shop. “The next thing I knew, I was pregnant, and that really motivated me to go back to school. So I entered a program for youth who are at risk, and they helped me go back to school, at East Los Angeles College.” She was pregnant the first semester and still earned straight A’s. Her daughter was born in the fall of 2014. Then came a downward turn, with domestic violence issues, and she dropped one class and suffered from depression.

“Everything has been challenging, because I’m not sure if my mental health will affect where I’m going, or whether it will even be possible.” Then she found the Center for Community College Partnerships and won a spot at a four-day program for aspiring STEM students. Her goal is to one day get a degree in microbiology.

As with the other students, her most daunting challenges are personal, not academic. “I’ve never had a stable home, always bounced around, renting rooms here and there. Being financially stable is a big problem for me because I don’t have any support from anybody. My mom is a widow and can’t work. It’s really hard for me to just rely on scholarships and financial aid that I receive. It’s so little. That’s really hard.”

Paulina Palomino, who directs the transfer center at East Los Angeles College, a two-year college that is nearly entirely Hispanic and is one of UCLA’s close partners in the program, said survival is the most pressing concern of students and their families. “That’s what it is, survival. Every family here is an integral part to the family’s survival. Senior members of the family may need caring for; it’s a variety of things. And it’s very common for the students themselves to be the voice of the family in navigating different institutions, especially medical care. They know the language, and family members depend on their presence.”

Students who transfer to a university outside their neighborhood, such as a University of California campus in San Francisco, Merced, or Riverside, are considered lost to the family’s fragile existence. The result: students are more likely to transfer locally, probably to a Cal State campus, despite that diminishing their odds of earning a degree. “We have conferences where we bring the parents in and tell them how important it is to support their child through their journey so they will be successful,” Palomino said. This is a national problem, not just a California problem.

Why selective colleges look down on transfer students

So if bumping up community college transfers to a top-tier university looks like a silver bullet, why isn’t it being done? Just to put things into perspective, at highly selective colleges and universities, transfers, especially from lightly regarded community colleges, are not common. In a much publicized move in the spring of 2018, Princeton University announced it had just accepted its first transfer students since a moratorium on transfers began in 1990. The elite university gave itself a pat on the back and issued this statement, which made me think of a favorite professor who always described such utterances as “penetrating glimpses into the obvious.” “Experience at other universities shows that transfer programs can provide a vehicle to attract students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, such as qualified military veterans and students from low-income backgrounds, including some who might begin their careers at community colleges.” True enough, but why so little so late?

The number of transfers Princeton settled on: 13. The number of community college transfer students UCLA accepts every year: roughly 4,000. Of those, about 3,000 enroll. What’s happening here, which is a rarity, just doesn’t happen elsewhere at this scale, not even at the fellow elite UC Berkeley. Why?

Here’s the rather obvious “secret” why colleges and universities for decades performed miserably with first-generation students, admitting too few and doing far too little to ensure their success. It’s because colleges are conditioned to exclude, not include, students. “Status is more and more based on how many people you don’t serve,” Scott Ralls, president of Northern Virginia Community College (who in the spring of 2019 took a new job as president of a community college in North Carolina), told a gathering at the Aspen Institute. Exclusion, which requires building up massive numbers of applicants and admitting few, makes them look highly selective. That, in turn, draws in top-scoring students, who boost the colleges’ standing on rankings such as the U.S. News & World Report listings — not to mention their bottom line, given that those same students are likely to come from wealthy families who can afford to pony up full tuition, and make those wonderful donations to boot.

There are other reasons why selective colleges and universities look down on transfers. Elite universities like to think they “build” their students from the ground up, meaning you’re not really a Harvard or a Princeton graduate unless you start there your freshman year. And even if some transfer students are allowed, those from community colleges are generally spurned. I mean, aren’t community college students there because they muffed high school? At a conference I attended at the Aspen Institute in Washington about community college transfers, I heard one higher education expert refer to it as the “private college disease.”

Private colleges, however, are not the only exclusivity snobs. At that same conference, I heard George Mason University president Ángel Cabrera talk about the resistance he ran across while trying to expand his school’s community college transfers. Many of the professors and administrators at Mason, he said, wanted to push Mason more in the direction of the elite University of Virginia, which, like most top public universities, basks in the aura of exclusivity. Aligning more with Northern Virginia Community College, he was advised, was moving the other way. It was never uttered directly out loud, he said, but it was the “unspoken tone” of many conversations. Cabrera ignored their advice and instead tapped the accelerator on transfers.

A breakthrough model in northern Virginia

For years, UCLA has been the national leader in promoting transfers to a four-year university. In the fall of 2018, however, a partnership launched in the sprawling Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., that in years to come is likely to match and perhaps exceed what UCLA does. The two players are Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), one of the largest and most respected two-year colleges in the country, and George Mason, one of the country’s fastest-growing universities. For years, the two have cooperated on transfers: Each year, roughly 3,000 NOVA students transfer to Mason, and those transfers have a remarkable success record: Within four years of arriving at Mason, 74 percent of those transfers earn bachelor’s degrees, slightly above the success rate for freshmen entering Mason, which is measured at the six-year mark.

Good, but not good enough, concluded NOVA president Ralls and Mason president Cabrera. The two presidents are close. On the first day his appointment was announced, Ralls got a call from Cabrera, and the two have breakfast together monthly. What got launched was a new initiative, called Advance, that works like this: An incoming NOVA freshman declares a major (let’s use cybersecurity as an example; currently, 21 majors are options) and then is assigned a “success coach,” trained by both NOVA and Mason, who lays out a pathway that guarantees that essential courses are taken, both courses related to cybersecurity and the required general education courses. That gets around the huge problem of community college students taking courses that don’t get accepted when they transfer to a four-year university — a waste of money these students don’t have. At the end of the two years at NOVA, that same success coach guides the student at Mason, putting them on track to graduate in four years, assuming they attend college full time. The savings to the student by starting out at NOVA is significant: about $16,000, or 30 percent of the overall tuition bill.

The first 129 Advance students started in the fall of 2018. By the year 2023, the most conservative estimate holds that 8,000 students will be in the program. But Michelle Marks, who oversees Advance, believes the numbers will be far larger, perhaps in the 30 to 50 percent range of all of NOVA’s 75,000 students. Why? Because NOVA students have every incentive to sign up. Why wouldn’t they?


“They don’t come to us for our degrees. They come to us to get to a better place for them and their families.”

— Scott Ralls, former president of Northern Virginia Community College

The reasons to expand transfers, Cabrera told the Aspen Institute gathering, go beyond trying to reverse social inequities. It’s what the major employers in Northern Virginia want, he said, pointing to the presence of both the CEO and president of Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense technology company, at the press event announcing Advance. “The top employers of our region are constantly hitting us that we’re not producing enough talent. You know, we need 3,000 more cybersecurity folks, so this is a talent solution, and everybody gets that.”

Avoiding, and mishandling, transfers, said Marks, is “one of the largest failures in higher education.” Among students entering NOVA, 80 percent say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 20 percent actually do. The potential leap in numbers is huge. “We’re designing a new kind of program that will be a single institutional experience,” said Marks. “It could be a commonwealth model and a national model.”

Ralls from NOVA agrees. “For over 20 years, I’ve worked in community colleges that have helped thousands of students. When I ask why they came here, never has one said, ‘When I was a little girl, I dreamed of always having an associate’s degree.’ They don’t come to us for our degrees. They come to us to get to a better place for them and their families, which means they’re trying to get to a career where the next stop is either the university or into a job … That’s why, for us, when we look at success, we should try to see how many students after six years have a bachelor’s degree, not just an associate’s degree.”

What’s already working at UCLA, and launched in Northern Virginia, is a breakthrough model.

Are UCLA, George Mason University, and Northern Virginia Community College alone here? Hardly. The American Talent Initiative has many partners willing to help out in achieving the goal of graduating an additional 50,000 low-income students at the 296 college and universities that currently graduate at least 70 percent of their students within six years. And over three years, the University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition of 11 public research universities with the goal of increasing diversity, says it has boosted the number of low-income graduates by 25 percent, which translates to another 6,000 graduates per year.

The University of Texas at Austin is a notable standout, having committed to improving its once-low graduation rate for high-poverty students. The university uses predictive analytics to identify more than 2,000 first-year students who need extra support. That support program offers financial scholarships, academic counseling, and peer mentoring. It’s resulted in a dramatic spike in college success rates, with the percentage of first-generation students graduating in four years rising from 41 percent in 2012 to 61.5 percent in 2018.

By creating programs that track students in trouble and offer grants for miscellaneous expenses, Georgia State University is yet another pioneer in making college work for low-income students.

Fighting the isolation of first-generation students

A striking story from researching The Alumni series involved a Dartmouth camping trip and was told to my by Yaritza Gonzalez, who was born in California to parents who picked strawberries when she was young and later moved to Inglewood near the LAX airport, where they work as restaurant servers. English was not the first language for many of the people who grew up in Gonzalez’s neighborhood, and the schools she attended were heavily Hispanic. But after graduating as salutatorian from a Green Dot charter high school, Gonzalez won a full scholarship to Dartmouth, where she was immediately immersed in a primarily white, privileged culture.

Dartmouth College’s get-to-know-you freshman traditions can feel completely foreign to some first-generation students. (Dartmouth College)

The first shock came after showing up for the traditional outdoor get-to-know-your-classmates adventure at Dartmouth. She ended up on a strenuous hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “I never really hiked before in my life. My parents never really took me or they didn’t have time because of work. A lot of my classmates had been Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. They had done this before, so they were pretty prepared with the equipment, the hiking boots, everything. I had to buy new hiking boots and hadn’t been able to break them in. And I had to borrow some equipment from the college, which was kind of broken. So the experience was not the best. I definitely learned a lot and I challenged my mental capacity to just keep going even though I was all the way in the back most of the time.”

Whenever she was asked to talk about her background, she found stunned silence among her classmates. “They weren’t being mean, they just had no way of relating. Better to say nothing than something inappropriate.” In classwork, she had to fight what nearly all first-generation students experience: the lure of isolation, the reluctance to build a campus community, the fear of asking for help. “Many [first-generation] students are intimidated to ask a professor for help or an extension,” she said. “We feel like we’re being judged, that it would show we’re not prepared, that we can’t handle the rigor.”

Before The B.A. Breakthrough reaches a true tipping point, students such as Yaritza Gonzalez have to be fully welcomed at colleges, including on the freshman get-to-know-you backpacking trips. In East Los Angeles, it’s an accepted fact that backpacking is not a neighborhood sport. At Dartmouth, this may be considered a revelation.

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation funded a writing fellowship that helped produce The B.A. Breakthrough and provides financial support to The 74.

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