In his remarkable book, Jude the Obscure, novelist Thomas Hardy paints a painful picture of Jude, a young man in late nineteenth century England who tries to break class barriers by entering Christminister College.
“Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall—but what a wall!”
In twenty-first century America, we have a related problem. Young people of modest means feel excluded from higher education, especially elite colleges and universities. While eight million find their way to community colleges, there is often no clear and compelling path to a baccalaureate degree. Moreover while some senior institutions actively recruit community college students, many exclude them. And those that do accept community college transfers usually provide little support, academically and financially.
I therefore offer the following proposal and challenge to all bachelor degree granting institutions: open your doors to recruit and accept community college transfers in the number of ten per cent of your junior class. By doing so approximately 200,000 community college students will be admitted to four year colleges and institutions, bolstering the number of bachelor degree graduates in our country.
This proposal is not entirely new. Some private elite institutions such as Smith , Amherst and Mount Holyoke Colleges where I live in Western Massachusetts have been recruiting community college students for decades. And these schools have set aside special financial aid to enable community college transfers to afford the high tuition costs. Outgoing Smith College President Carol Christ told me that the Ada Comstock program at Smith dedicated to community college transfers is attractive to Smith alumnae because they understand that their contribution goes twice as far. Why? Because entering as juniors, these transfers have to be supported for only two years of undergraduate education.
Elite private colleges and universities have been criticized for their privileged position in American society. These institutions draw their undergraduates primarily from the advantaged and therefore, their campuses are not reflective of the socio-economic or ethnic profile of our society. As non-profits they enjoy substantial tax advantages: their donors are shielded from federal taxes and their campuses are exempt from property taxes. Finally, these schools, especially the private research universities, receive substantial federal government funds in the way of grants and research contracts.
By opening their doors to community college students four year colleges, especially the private elites, will make their student body more diverse creating a better educational environment for their traditional students. Moreover, their tax exempt status is predicated on the assumption that these institutions perform a public benefit. By assisting those of modest means to earn a bachelor’s degree, they will create opportunity for upward mobility affirming that one’s birth circumstance should not dictate one’s place in society.
Some may be concerned that community college tranfers in large numbers may not be successful at four year institutions. The Illinois Education Research Council in a new report, The Community College Penalty: Fact or Fiction, concludes that this is not so. According to the findings, “community college transfer students were just as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree as rising four-year college juniors when matching on key factors.” Furthermore, the study found that 85% of the community students in the study had earned a bachelor’s degree within five academic years of transfer.
Four year colleges should be pro-active in their approach to encouraging community college transfers. They can actively recruit as they do their traditional students. And they should set up academic support programs to make the transition easier. But most important, the senior institutions must establish scholarships directly aimed at community college transfers to help them afford the higher tuition and living costs.
Finally, let us give Jude the Obscure the last word about our collective responsibility. In a famous passage Jude states,
"All the little ones of our time are collectively the children of us adults of the time, and entitled to our general care. That excessive regard of parents for their own children, and their dislike of other people's, is, like class-feeling, patriotism, save-your-own-soul-ism, and other virtues, a mean exclusiveness at bottom.”