New research coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action has nudged conversation about America’s elite universities back into the mainstream. While discussion about higher education never really quiets among those working in the field, public curiosity about selectivity, who benefits, and the correlation between admission and social mobility tends to ebb and flow.
In a post-affirmative action reality, reforms to longstanding admission policies are necessary to diversify enrollment and the positions of influence their graduates enter later on. Based on findings by Raj Chetty, David Deming, and John Friedman in a recent report, one article called for eliminating legacy admissions, lessening athletics as a selection factor and elevating measures of academic talent. Reform based on these three recommendations can map a new future for highly selective universities, nixing the non-academic factors that advantage high-income applicants and work against diversification of the student body.
Re-imagining the systems that uphold selectivity can create a ripple effect in social mobility, opening doors for the most talented yet under-resourced students to access the highest-tier universities and the networks, future income, and security associated with them.
A different path to the top
Last month, I read an update from a graduate who checks in with our college president, sharing her adventures, academic pursuits and dreams that are becoming a reality. The storied message detailed her life as an Ivy League undergraduate, an idyllic picture of life at a top university: research opportunities abroad, a dean who had unlocked opportunities for her, her careful consideration of a fellowship versus medical school.
For the less than half of a percent of college students selected to learn at the “top,” access to researchers, work in exclusive labs, experiences in bridging cultural differences and lucrative post-graduation options are commonplace. This tapestry of opportunity sets highly selective institutions apart as shining examples of a well-constructed education worthy of intense competition to enter.
What makes hearing about daily life at Yale even more special is that the future scientist sharing the updates earned her first degree, an associate degree, from Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Elyria, Ohio.
Akua Agyemang, the soon-to-be Ivy League graduate behind the updates, entered Yale University as a community college transfer student in 2021. Akua’s is a road less traveled, or even considered, among the exceptionally diverse students served by America’s more than 1,000 community colleges. In addition to her academic pursuits, Akua works alongside Yale’s admissions office welcoming other transfer students, each following a unique path to an Ivy League education.
Like Akua, Eleana Cintron knows this unique path firsthand, as she attended LCCC before transferring to Case Western Reserve University. A NASA internship, hours in a microbiology lab and conference-worthy research sound like the opportunities found at highly selective universities. However, Eleana credits those opportunities to LCCC, and identifies early accomplishments, community college faculty and LCCC’s Early College High School as factors that helped her stand out in competitive admissions.
After earning her first two degrees through a community college, Eleana now holds a bachelor’s degree in polymer and biomedical engineering from Case. As a first-generation college student who sought access to local, high-quality academics, Eleana leveraged community college experiences to earn admission to a private research university and its professional networks.
To be sure, community colleges, the Ivies and private research universities alike prioritize equitable access to higher education and post-graduation outcomes. Preparing leaders and boosting socioeconomic prosperity are values found in both ivory towers and the open-access college in your community. The distinctions between them are policies that promote or limit access. Inequities across social networks, available resources and gaps in awareness further explain why some gifted students compete for access, while others start their journey elsewhere.
Clearing the path for transfers: A fourth recommendation
Diversifying highly selective universities certainly involves the aforementioned recommendations. However, perhaps the most overlooked formula for creating equitable access is sitting right under our noses: reforming transfer-in policies and building relationships between high-performing community colleges and elite institutions.
As Akua, of Yale University, shared about her experience starting at a community college: “[These years] have allowed me to pursue a quality education at a price that was affordable for myself and my family.”
With her 4.0 grade point average, medical research and frontline experience in a pharmacy during the Covid pandemic, Akua would have been competitive in a stack of first-year admission application files. Her choice to gain college credits and finish associate degrees before transfer to Yale was informed by economic realities, family ties, and the awareness that rigorous science curriculum and dedicated faculty was available right in her backyard.
For Eleana, a first-generation college student with passion for science, she explored STEM disciplines locally through hands-on academics and received mentoring from faculty who welcomed a young scholar into their labs.
Today, community colleges are more vibrant than ever, and provide the first point of access to nearly one half of all first-time college students. Their students reflect the diversity in interests, socioeconomic status, race, gender and life experiences elite institutions seek to attract. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) publishes a national community college profile, noting nearly one-third of community college students are the first in their family to attend college, and over half identify as a race other than white. Within community colleges, universities will find not only exceptional academic talent, but individuals achieving while parenting, military veterans and students from immigrant families. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which promotes upward transfer from community colleges, found students following this pathway are likely, or even slightly more likely, to succeed at competitive universities than students admitted directly from high school.
Acting on the fourth recommendation begins with acknowledging two realities about community colleges. First, higher education overall must accept that income, social networks and family responsibilities influence college choice. In addition, viewing community colleges as transformational, student-centered and academically rigorous is critical in constructing new pathways to prosperity across different types of institutions.
Community college students are our future, representing diversity and the promise of upward mobility through education. Networks like Achieving the Dream (ATD) have helped community colleges transform into hubs of innovation and student success, using data and strategy to meet students where they are and push their dreams far beyond their walls.
As willing and eager partners in shaping transfer admission policies, many ATD schools are already conversant in Chetty’s Opportunity Insights and prior research, and share a sense of urgency in broadening access to upward mobility. Chetty’s keynote at ATD’s convening in 2023 served as a reminder that systemic barriers to the “top” do exist, having stacked up over time and within certain zip codes. Community colleges leverage localness to connect with overlooked talent that ignites with opportunity, and are more relevant than ever in building a diverse next generation of leaders.
Findings from the study provide a roadmap to diversify elite institutions through three compelling recommendations. However, turning to community colleges might be the most influential proposal yet. Community colleges like LCCC stand ready to help their students dream big, and will stand with pride knowing more journeys to the top started with us.