Last Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 19, a bill promising all first-time community college students free tuition for their first year. Although the assembly bill most directly affects prospective community college attendees, USC expects an increase in transfer applicants, and will in turn be impacted. For years, USC has consistently accepted greater numbers of transfer students than any other private institution. In Fall 2017, USC enrolled 1,300 transfer students, with 50 percent of those students coming from California community colleges.
In contrast, other private elite institutions like Princeton University have admitted zero transfer students in over 20 years. In 2015, Yale and Stanford University enrolled 24 and 15 transfer students, respectively. USC has become an anomaly in transfer admissions in comparison with other private institutions, who are wary of transfer students and more motivated to maintain rankings, high graduation rates and selective admissions. Yet, with the prospect of even more community college transfer students in the next few years given increased access via AB 19, more private institutions, especially in California, must be ready to admit and enroll larger numbers, and subsequently open up their campuses to more diverse student bodies.
While popularly imagined as under-achievers, the average USC transfer student’s college GPA of 3.7 is nearly equal to that of the freshman admit’s (3.73). Top public universities, who also accept a large number of transfer students, see minimal differences between freshman and transfer admits’ academic standing: UCLA and UC Berkeley both report less than a 0.10 difference in GPA between freshmen and transfer admits.
In addition, many transfer students, especially from community colleges, achieve their goal of attending a four-year university by overcoming economic or academic adversity that freshmen admits coming straight from high school may not have faced. Others join four-year colleges after testing the waters of the modern workforce immediately after high school, and bring more diverse experiences with them.
Yet, as many private colleges neglect to “cash in” on the diversity of transfers, the absence of community college transfer students attending private institutions perpetuates the notion that private universities are reserved for more economically privileged students. This notion arguably dates back to the desegregation of U.S. public schools in the 1950s, when private education dramatically grew as a response to prevent integration. Since then, the stand-alone cost of a private education has preserved this impression, implicitly discouraging low-income students of color from diverse backgrounds from even attempting to enroll in private universities.
Nonetheless, a study by the Council of Independent Colleges concluded that low-income and first-generation community college transfers found more success at private universities, graduating in four years at higher rates than at public universities, despite the majority of transfer students transfer into public colleges. According to US News and World Report, the top 100 colleges accepting the most transfer students are public state schools.
Many colleges tout their commitment to maintaining opportunities for undocumented students but continue to deny access to uphold atmospheres of non-inclusivity for transfer community college students, of whom a plurality are undocumented. According to the Los Angeles Times, approximately 61,000 community college students are beneficiaries of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. At Pomona College, for example, only 3 percent of its admits were transfer students. And Stanford, another elite private California institution ranked fourth in ethnic diversity by U.S. News, accepted only 15 transfer students in 2015, and did not disclose how many are from community colleges.
USC has observed success on the rankings ladder while simultaneously accepting increasing numbers of transfer students. The University currently ranks as the fourth most economically diverse and 21st best university in the nation. These statistics should naturally allay other private colleges’ fear of a depreciated rank due to accepting more transfer students, and encourage them to follow suit. If private universities do not begin to admit and enroll more transfer students, then they are failing to promote and broaden their ubiquitous social mission to educate all students regardless of racial or economic background.