Harvard Lags in Community College Recruitment

Unlike some schools, Harvard does not widely recruit community college transfers

This is the second article three-part series about formerly homeless mother Kimberly S.M. Woo '10 and other transfer students from community colleges called "The Road Less Traveled."
Part 1: A Ticket Out of Poverty
Part 3: Mixed Blessings for Student Mother

When Markus A. Besselle ’08 decided to apply to the Ivy League after his two years at a California community college, he received as many skeptical glances as pats on the back.

“I had a lot of people on my side and a lot of encouragement,” Besselle said. “However, many times I would tell people that I was applying to Stanford or Harvard, and the kids would give me a look and say ‘Oh, good luck.’”

Besselle was one of a lucky few who made it inside Harvard’s gates after a journey that included a full-time job at a Gateway computer retailer while he worked toward an associate’s degree in business.

Although Harvard has pledged to increase socioeconomic diversity, community college transfer students remain a small percentage of Harvard’s classes.

Each year, the University accepts fewer than three students from community colleges, according to estimates from several Harvard transfers. (The University says it does not track this data.)

People studying at community colleges often prioritize low tuition and have to balance school with work. Nevertheless, many top schools are aggressively recruiting transfer students from community colleges. But Harvard has taken a decidedly lower-key approach, making little effort to bring in students from nontraditional educational backgrounds.

“I think elite institutions underestimate these students and are scared of admitting them,” said Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied community college transfer trends.

THROUGH THE GATES

Two years ago, Besselle transferred to Harvard from Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif.

Besselle is the first person in his family to receive a higher education. He says financial constraints were a primary reason why he opted for a community college rather than a four-year school.

“I think community colleges are great gateways,” Besselle said.

Besselle was accepted to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Besselle says he ultimately chose Harvard because of its financial aid package.

In fall 2005, when Besselle transferred, the College implemented an initiative to eliminate tuition costs for students whose families earn less than $40,000 per year.

The total number of students who transfer to Harvard each year varies, depending on the number of open slots, but in recent years it has hovered between 40 and 80.

Besselle was one of 56 who transferred to Harvard in fall 2005. That year, only two were from community colleges and five were from other Ivy League institutions.

According to Harvard College Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath ’70, the number of community college transfer applicants and the overall transfer admit rates are low. This year the number of transfers decreased in an effort to reduce House crowding, McGrath said.

Harvard has instituted programs to recruit minority and rural freshman high school applicants across the country, but it does not recruit at community colleges, according to Marlene Rotner, head of transfer admissions for the College.

However, Rotner added, “Whenever we’re invited to do something, we’ll go. We’re always delighted to talk about Harvard.”

REACHING OUT

Community colleges have multiple missions, one of which is to prepare students to later enter a four-year school.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that more than half of students entering community colleges listed transferring to a four-year college as a primary goal.

“In general, highly selective private institutions have not devoted much attention to community college transfers,” said Steven Handel, senior director of the National Office of Community College Initiatives for the College Board.

But some institutions have tried to change their ways in recent years.

Each year 1,400 to 1,600 students apply to Stanford for about 70 spots in the junior class, The New York Times reported last spring. Last academic year, 26 percent of those accepted to Stanford came from community colleges, according to the Times.

At Amherst College, nine out of 11 of this fall’s transfer class are community college transfers, according to Amherst admissions statistics. Amherst also visited 22 different community colleges this fall.

Both the University of Virginia and the University of California, Los Angeles are making concerted efforts to recruit community college students in their states.

UVA is now in its third year of a local community-college outreach program. According to UVA’s admissions office, last year nearly half of its 500 transfer students came from Virginia community colleges. This year, UVA agreed to take 60 percent of its transfer class from Virginia community colleges.

UCLA gives priority to students transferring from California community colleges, according to its admissions office Web site.

Harvard is not alone among its peers in choosing not to actively recruit transfer students. Yale Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said that given the large number of students applying to transfer to Yale and a limited number of openings, visiting schools is not necessary.

“With over 1,200 community colleges in the U.S. and only 24 transfer places each year at Yale, it would simply not be feasible for us to undertake a visitation program,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Princeton does not offer transfer admission.

BRIDGING THE GAP

Though some schools surpass Harvard in recruiting efforts, the College has reached out to at least one local community college.

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston has created a committee to bridge the information gap between community colleges and private colleges. The Bunker Hill faculty and executives have met with admissions directors of four-year colleges to determine what type of students the schools seek.

In October, Rotner and McGrath visited Bunker Hill.

“Some people generally think Harvard is another land—that it is untouchable, and you have to be from a certain economic background—but that’s not the case,” said Nicole Guilmette-Biagioni, a Bunker Hill professor on the committee. “They dispelled a lot of the myths that people have about Harvard.”

According to McGrath, Harvard admission directors discussed the admissions process and what the school looks for in applicants.

“It was not terribly different from talking about freshman admissions processes,” McGrath said.

Bunker Hill faculty members said they feel better prepared to guide students and answer tough questions because of increased communication with four-year schools.

“Is this college a good fit in terms of a nontraditional student?” Guilmette-Biagioni asked, quoting a question she was often asked. “Financially, can our students afford this school?”

For Besselle, the move worked out, and now he hopes to use his experience to help others.

Besselle is the vice president of TransferAdmit.com, a student-run Web site that aims to advise college students who are considering transferring. Besselle also plans to write a book of advice for transfer students with his roommate, also a transfer student.

“For students who don’t have a mentor, I think it’s important for Harvard to keep the transfer process alive and as an open gateway,” Besselle said.

“I would never change anything about my life. I would do it again. I was working full time then. I learned how it feels to have people looking down on you,” Besselle said. “That feeling, though, made me strive to do better.”

—Staff writer Arianna Markel can be reached at amarkel@fas.harvard.edu.