Community College Transfers Thrive at Elite Universities

Community college transfers are rare on elite campuses, but they typically succeed once enrolled.
8 min read

Share this Article

  • About 30% of community college students transfer to four-year schools.
  • Of that group, only 5% attend highly selective colleges — but that same group thrives academically.
  • Universities have support systems to help transfers acclimate to university life.

Nationwide, 41% of American college students attend a community college. About 30% of them will eventually transfer to a four-year institution. Many will attend public universities in their home state. Some will transfer to private colleges.

Only a relative handful will find their way to America's most highly selective universities. But those who do most often succeed.

Transfers to Selective Colleges Increasing But Still Low

Transfer students constitute a significant portion of the student population on U.S. campuses. In 2016, 30% of college students were transfers. That population was divided evenly between students transferring from two-year and four-year colleges.

Last year, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges nationwide lost 191,500 transfer students. But while community college enrollment dropped 9.4% compared to 2019-2020, upward transfers — students moving from two-year to four-year schools — declined by only 1.3%.

At the same time, transfers to highly selective institutions actually grew 10.3% last year, compared to 0.3% the year before, while less-competitive and noncompetitive institutions experienced transfer declines of 4.4% and 11.6%, respectively.

How do community college students, in particular, fit into this picture? A report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation titled "Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Four-Year Institutions," offers mixed findings.

Transfers to highly selective institutions actually grew 10.3% last year, compared to 0.3% the year before...

Quotation mark

More than 35,000 community college transfer students enroll at selective colleges and universities each year, the report notes. Yet while 14% of students at the nation's 100 most selective colleges are transfers, only 5% come from community colleges.

Broken down further, at the most competitive private institutions, 0.9% of students are community college transfers. At highly competitive private schools, the next rung down, that figure is 0.7%. At very competitive private schools, it's 3.9%.

But here's the good news. Community college students who transfer to the most competitive colleges have a higher graduation rate (76%) than their non-transfer counterparts (75.5%), suggesting that once they're accepted, they can and do succeed.

"Thirty years ago, people might have thought community college transfer students represented a risk to colleges," said Giuseppe Basili, executive director of the Cooke Foundation, in a conversation with BestColleges. "They're actually among the least risky students possible because of their ambition and the track record they bring to the table."

Transfer Acceptance Rates at Selective Colleges

If you're a community college student hoping to transfer to a selective four-year school, the news is either good or bad, depending on where you want to go.

At most elite private colleges, transfer acceptance rates are lower than first-year rates. But at selective public schools, the opposite is often true. Retention rates at private colleges tend to run higher than those at public colleges, so there are fewer spots to backfill.

Transfer Acceptance Rates at Elite Schools

Chevron Down
Institution Transfer Acceptance Rate First-Time, First-Year Acceptance Rate
Ivy League
Brown University 3.5% 7.6%
Dartmouth College 28.5%* 9.2%
Columbia University in the City of New York 6% 6.3%
Cornell University 18.4% 10.7%
Harvard University 1.2% 5%
Princeton University (2019) 1.4% 5.7%
University of Pennsylvania 7.8% 8.9%
Yale University 1.6% 6.5%
Other Highly Selective Private Universities
Duke University (2019) 6% 7.7%
Georgetown University 14% 16.8%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2018) 4.3% 6.7%
Northwestern University 15.4% 9.3%
Rice University 12.4% 10.9%
Stanford University 3.8% 5.2%
University of Notre Dame 43.4%** 19%
Washington University in St. Louis 26.3% 16%
Highly Selective Liberal Arts Colleges
Amherst College 5.5% 11.8%
Bowdoin College 4.6% 9.1%
Middlebury College 16.5% 22%
Swarthmore College 13.4% 9%
Vassar College (2019) 10.8% 23.7%
Williams College 2.5% 15%
Highly Selective Public Universities
University of California, Berkeley 10.3% 17.5%
University of California, Los Angeles 24.5% 14.3%
University of Florida 43% 31.1%
University of Michigan 45.7% 26%
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 44.6% 23.5%
The University of Texas at Austin 32.3% 32%
University of Virginia 40.4% 22.5%

*An aberration, evidently: In 2018 the rate was 4.1%, and in 2017 it was 1.5%.

**Also an aberration, but less so: In 2018 the rate was 30%, and in 2017 it was 22.8%.

Above are sample admissions stats drawn from the 2020 Common Data Set except where otherwise noted and linked. Bear in mind these reflect the fall 2019 application cycle.

Thanks to a surge in applications in fall 2020, many highly competitive colleges saw their acceptance rates decline dramatically. While first-year figures were made public, transfer acceptance rates largely were not, so we'll have to wait for the 2021 data sets to make credible comparisons.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Transfer Student

When community college students land at highly selective schools, it's common for them to harbor feelings of inadequacy, a condition known as "imposter syndrome."

"Academically, imposter syndrome was a huge problem the first year," said Corey Lamb, a senior at Stanford University, in a conversation with BestColleges. The 41-year-old Lamb, a single father, transferred from Fullerton College, a community college in California.

Daniela Alvarez certainly felt that way as well. She was one of two women — and nine students in total — who transferred to Princeton in 2018, the first year the university reinstated transfer admissions following a nearly two-decade hiatus. Born in Cuba, Alvarez moved to Miami as a youth and attended Miami Dade College before transferring.

"You have academic shock at the beginning because this is a whole different ball game," Alvarez told BestColleges. "There were a lot of moments that were really challenging, and I thought, 'Do I really belong here?' Imposter syndrome does creep in, but I never had a time where I thought I shouldn't have transferred here."

Colleges put systems in place to help students make a seamless transition and avoid feelings of alienation. Special orientation for transfers begins as soon as they arrive. Advisors dedicated to transfer cohorts ensure students know how to access academic and personal resources.

“You have academic shock at the beginning because this is a whole different ball game ...” — Daniela Alvarez

Quotation mark

At Princeton, the transfer advisor taught an introductory writing course just for Alvarez's cohort (the "unicorns" on campus, as she put it), so students immediately shared an academic experience together. Lamb referred to Stanford's advisor as the group's "den mother."

Mount Holyoke, a women's college in South Hadley, Mass., has a long history of welcoming community college transfers. About 90 students per year are enrolled in the college's Frances Perkins Program, established in 1980 for nontraditional transfers with some college credits.

College staff begin working with Frances Perkins students the summer before they arrive on campus, guiding them through degree requirements, credit transfer, and choosing classes. Carolyn Dietel, director of the Frances Perkins program and head of transfer affairs, said Perkins students form strong bonds, creating a "community within a community."

"They have a desire to be connected to one another," Dietel told BestColleges," because they're going through something different from their 18-year-old peers."

The Cooke Foundation, which offers the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship program for high-achieving community college students, encourages its scholarship recipients across various campuses to form such bonds with incoming transfers.

"That built-in support system is incredibly important," Basili said. "We try to foster it as best we can, but quite frankly, the community itself does it. It's kind of beautiful."

Feature Image: Bruce Yuanyue Bi / The Image Bank / Getty Images