When Alyson Cina was deciding where to finish college, she found that schools up and down the East Coast could rarely answer her questions or anticipate what she wanted from a campus.
An associate’s degree from a New Jersey community college already in hand, Cina said she cared most about finding the best international affairs school and the strongest Arabic program, not the best residence halls or dining plan.
“Not many schools are really good at reaching out to transfer students,” said Cina, who also looked at Georgetown, American and Johns Hopkins universities.
GW’s admissions office is now opening more doors for transfer students like Cina, who are already halfway through completing their degrees and often come from low-income backgrounds.
Former community college students now make up 57 percent of GW’s roughly 900 transfer students. The University has accepted more than 4,000 transfers in the last four years – and over the same period, GW’s admit rate for transfer students nearly doubled.
The University is increasingly turning toward the transfer population to help diversify an applicant pool that struggles to draw low-income students because of GW’s nearly $60,000 sticker price. Not only do community college students help GW boast a more diverse class, they can also help manage gaps in its enrollment due to students who move off campus or head abroad for a semester.
The admissions office added a position this year to reshape its transfer strategy, which will support the University’s goal to “reach out more aggressively to academically talented community college students,” Director of Undergraduate Admissions Karen Felton said.
The 41 percent admissions rate for transfers sits above those of GW’s peer institutions, including New York, Boston, Georgetown, Northwestern, Tulane and Vanderbilt universities, which have accepted fewer than 30 percent of applicants in recent years.
Admitting more transfer students also helps GW’s financial aid budget – by requiring fewer years of aid – and its graduation rate, because students have already completed one or two years of school.
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said GW, with one of the highest tuition prices in the country, can seem out of reach to lower-income students. University President Steven Knapp said last week that GW was still fighting off the “sticker shock” of its tuition.
“For us to give a scholarship to someone, we have to put down a lot of money, as opposed to a community college,” Trachtenberg said.
Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate for the Community College Research Center, said countless studies have shown that lower-income students are underrepresented at top schools and over-represented at community colleges.
“The stratification is extremely stark,” he said. “There is a dire need for more income diversity, especially in elite institutions.”
Jenkins called GW’s strategy to designate a staff member for transfer admissions and its new partnership with a community college honors program the first steps toward making the University more accessible.
The number of transfers will likely rise this fall thanks to GW’s new partnership with American Honors, a program that helps top community college students prepare to transfer to four-year schools.
GW will set aside an undetermined number of transfer spots for American Honors students, who work with academic advisers to navigate applications, transfer their credits and find the most affordable options. The program aims to ensure that students arrive on four-year schools’ campuses ready to take on the course work, drawing from experience in a demanding community college curriculum.
In its first year, American Honors has helped about 300 students from four community colleges in Washington state and Indiana. As part of its plan to expand nationally, it has planned partnerships with four universities in the D.C. area, including GW.
The program hopes to ultimately support more than 40,000 students and partner with at least 150 schools.
Laurie Koehler, who the University hired as senior associate provost for enrollment management this summer, has helped propel the efforts.
David Finegold, chief academic officer for the company that founded American Honors, said Koehler has been a national leader in expanding access for transfer students, and said she was eager to work with the program.
Koehler declined interview requests. She said in a statement that transfer students “add a breadth of experiences and perspectives that enrich the GW community.”
“More and more colleges and universities have come to understand the contributions that transfer students can bring to their campus communities, both in and out of the classroom, and so the competition for top transfer applicants is tougher than ever,” she said.
About 20 percent of community college students transfer to private, nonprofit institutions, according to an August 2013 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The University has also taken steps to better support transfer students when they arrive on campus, with the Center for Student Engagement launching a mentorship program last year to help them adjust more quickly.
Cristina Bricoli transferred from a New Jersey community college, drawn to GW’s urban campus that also provided a network for students acclimating to the school. It connected her with other transfer students at orientation and showed her how she could get involved on campus.
“Everyone I knew was transferring somewhere else. I know a lot of people who went on to other schools who didn’t have the same strong community that we have here,” Bricoli said.
– Avery Anapol and Chloé Sorvino contributed reporting.