Navigating the Path From Community College to Prestigious Private University

As private four-year colleges search for ways to increase access to success and equity, one strategy, stands out: expanding the community transfer pipeline. Of the approximately 450,000 students who transferred from a community college to a four-year campus in 2017, only 23 percent attended a private institution. By contrast, private colleges enroll 30 percent of all incoming four-year students, indicating that community college transfers are underrepresented.

To learn what works from leaders and students, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program presents two interviews. For this first installment, the team interviewed Omar Moussa Pasha, who graduated from Rice University, one of America’s leading private universities. Moussa Pasha, who is studying to become a physician, served as president of Rice’s transfer student association.

When I first thought about transferring to a four-year college, I googled “top-ranked schools in Texas.” When Rice University came up, I wondered, “Can I really get in there?” Rice stood out for its student-to-faculty ratio and strong academic and research opportunities. I read about the residential college system—the way each college has its own advisers and student governments, which makes it seem like Hogwarts. But I found the numbers were intimidating: Rice rejects about nine of every 10 applicants. Besides, I hadn’t seen Rice in college fairs at my community college, so I assumed they were out of my league.

I had started thinking about college as soon as I came to the United States with my family from Saudi Arabia at the age of 17. Determined to become a physician, I envisioned starting at a four-year university, but application deadlines had mostly passed by the time I arrived in Texas. Fortunately, I got the chance to begin my journey in Houston Community College’s honors program. For two years there, I benefited from a tight-knit cohort of students and a network of advisers, staff and faculty who provided support at every step. Professors encouraged me to engage in extracurricular and leadership opportunities, and the honors college director urged me to apply to prestigious universities. I decided to apply to Rice one afternoon after an adviser at Houston Community College’s writing center mentioned that her daughter went to Vanderbilt. At that moment, attending schools like Vanderbilt or Rice felt like possibilities.

The doubts surfaced again when I committed to Rice: How would I fit into this traditional campus if I entered as a junior, two years later than most students? Right away, though, the upperclass peer advisers in my orientation group made me feel part of the culture. They became my family that first year, helping me understand degree requirements, electives I would need, resources I could use and extracurricular opportunities I should consider.

During my first few weeks on campus, I also saw ways that universities like Rice can make the transfer experience even better. One example: transfer students receive a lot of information in the first days; it is easy to forget about resources and opportunities, so reminders help. Underwhelmed by my grades that first semester, I realized I needed to refine my study habits. Resources at Rice like peer advisors, study groups and office hours were not the norm at my community college, because students had to leave immediately after classes to work or care for their families. At Rice, I met with my academic adviser every few weeks to discuss my progress and resources I could use to overcome any challenges I faced. With these regular visits, I became more efficient with my study habits, and my grades improved substantially.

Beyond the classroom, I focused on research, benefiting from a one-minute commute to the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex, which happened to be across the street from Rice’s campus. Also, I worked with administrators on several initiatives as president of Rice’s transfer student association. When I applied, the information sessions were directed at first-year, first-time college students and parents. During my first few weeks, I pitched a transfer-specific information session to the admissions director. We worked closely over the next year on presentations about academics (which is largely why the community college student transfer), the residential college experience and outcomes after graduation. By showing what transfer students do after earning a bachelor’s degree, we signal to prospective transfers that they can successfully navigate, and thrive after, their four-year experience.

Omar Moussa Pasha, an olive-skinned man with glasses and a beard, in his graduation robe and cap.As I reflect on my time at Rice, I think about lessons learned. If one stands out for four-year colleges, it’s this: tell students to keep their syllabi from community college courses, since these are crucial when petitioning for transfer credit. Transfer students often find out too late that credits from some classes are not automatically accepted. I had to petition for courses in almost every department, navigating complicated credit equivalency rules, assessments and conditions for transfer. The result: I couldn’t transfer some credits and needed an extra year to retake a sequence of courses to earn my degree.

I hope private four-year schools can remove some barriers to make sure community college transfers can succeed and become role models for all students. Of course, a supportive academic adviser can make an enormous difference during rough spots. I certainly had one, and I was grateful she was at my graduation a few weeks ago, to see the impact she had.

For actionable tactics to use on your campus, consider six tips Omar provided based on his transfer experience:

  • Make sure your institution is visible and present in spaces where community college students are, such as college fairs and open houses, especially early in the admissions process.
  • Build awareness of your institution among the community college advisers and professors, who are major influences in students’ decision making about where to transfer.
  • Tailor information sessions for transfer students, focusing on academics, the campus experience, resources specific to the needs of transfers on your campus and success stories of transfer alumni. Offer contact information for faculty and advisers and encourage them to be responsive to student questions.
  • Make sure you keep academic sharing, social and professional resources and engagement opportunities with transfer students, even as early as their community college days.
  • Provide transfer students with leadership opportunities in universitywide committees and groups where they can share perspectives to reinforce their sense of belonging.
  • As soon as students indicate interest in your institution, make transfer credit advisers available to help navigate the credit transfer process, especially because private four-year colleges usually do not have articulation agreements with community colleges.

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