Enhancing Diversity, Equity, and the Public Good: Transfer Pathways from Community Colleges to Independent Colleges


**This essay is a reflection on the “Playbook for Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts: How to Design and Implement Statewide Pathways from Community Colleges to Independent Colleges” authored by Julia Karon, Daniel Rossman, Elanine Vilorio, and Rayane Alamuddin, which was published on March 17, 2022 by ITHAKA S-R .**


Community colleges play a significant role in liberal arts education in the undergraduate education arena. According to Pippins, Belfield and Bailey (June, 2019), 41 percent of undergraduate students in 2015 in liberal arts and the humanities were enrolled in community colleges. Considering the significant role of community colleges in the liberal arts education, it is of great importance to structure transfer pathways for community college students to 4-year institutions. 

In this vein, the project evaluation report entitled Playbook for Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts: How to Design an Implement Statewide Pathways from Community Colleges to Independent Colleges is a crucial resource on how to create systemic change and to establish transfer pathways from community colleges to inviting not-for-profit independent colleges. This playbook provides the essential components of the initiatives that have been implemented by the grantees in six states: North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The playbook suggests how to sustain the transfer structure from community colleges to not-for-profit independent 4-year institutions for liberal arts students. The Transfer Pathways to the Liberal Arts initiative is co-sponsored by the Teagle Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (AVDF). 

The playbook present three steps of the initiative: 

  • Step one: Determine the initiative’s shared goals between community colleges and 4-year independent colleges and universities
  • Step two: Establish the initiative’s infrastructure 
  • Step three: Ensure the initiative’s sustainability 


Step One: Determine the initiative’s shared goals

As the first step, the report highlights the significance of examining the existing transfer system in a state, region, and institutional context to identify the most effective transfer strategies, to identify shared goals, and to determine guide principles. In particular, this section introduces surveying projects that have been undertaken by the project leaders in Ohio to ensure that the project goals match the member institutions’ needs and circumstances. To align the initiative’s goals, the playbook also introduces the New England Board of Higher Education’s effort to collaborate with multiple actors, “including public four-year institutions, state associations of private colleges, state government officials, individual independent colleges and students” (p. 12). The playbook authors also advocate for reducing equity gaps by conferring low-income students and students from underserved communities as one of the most crucial goals for community college initiatives. (p. 14). 


Step Two: Establish the initiative’s infrastructure

In the next step, the report highlights the need “to garner buy-in and commitment from stakeholders, including leadership and staff–particularly faculty members” (p. 16). In particular, this report points out that building trust between faculty at community colleges and four-year institutions is key. As an effective way of building trust among the related faculty members, this report suggests in-person meetings for faculty at both institutions. The report also suggests scheduling community college class visits from 4-year college faculty to deconstruct misconceptions around viewing community college curriculum as less rigorous compared to 4-year institutions. In addition, this report discusses community college faculty’s involvement in curriculum design at their colleges and advice on how to align their curriculum with the existing transfer initiatives. 

Also, on the one hand, considering the significance of addressing independent institutional leadership concerns about their institutions’ uniqueness, this playbook suggests shifting general education requirements to graduation requirements so that community college transfer students can transfer their general education courses and take specialized courses at the independent institution. On the other hand, by aligning with existing transfer pathways, independent institutions can “assure community college leadership that they will not have to sacrifice existing connections to public four-year institutions in the state” (p. 22).

This report emphasizes obtaining buy-in from relevant offices including registrars, financial aid offices, admissions counselors, and advisors as they are essential stakeholders in any transfer initiative early on, as well as inviting public institutions to participate as they have considerable experience with developing pathways, along with subject matter experts in the initiative. 


Step Three: Ensure the initiative’s sustainability

Finally, this playbook argues for the significance of marketing independent colleges as a transfer destination. Toward that goal, this report recommends utilizing relevant technology, creating outreach to potential community college students, communicating the benefit of attending independent colleges, building best practices for community college advising, setting up campus supports such as potential community college transfer students’ participation in classes and extracurricular activities and/or offering a supportive office dedicated to transfer students, and creating a transfer-friendly campus culture both in and beyond the classroom.  


Towards Equity, Diversity, and the Public Good 

The survey results from faculty show that they highlight the importance of expanding transfer pathways from community colleges to independent colleges in terms of enhancing the diversity of their institutions through increasing the number of transfer students from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. As the survey results noted, increasing transfer pathways for community college liberal arts students to not-for-profit independent colleges encourages the more active engagement of the independent colleges and their contribution to narrowing equity gaps and enhancing diversity. This not only applies to diversifying their student bodies but also to expanding students’ knowledge, perspectives, and aspirations, especially for the non-transferred students. As the report shares data indicating community college transfer students are successful in their performances at their transferred 4-year institutions, it is significant to deconstruct the bias around community college transfer students as well as bias concerning community college education and curriculum. Furthermore, such an initiative invites us to examine the limited public conception of independent colleges, which overlooks their contributions to progressing higher education as the public good. 

Additionally, the results of the survey which was administered as part of the initiative reveal that stakeholders are interested in increasing transfer rates specifically for first-generation and low-income community college students. This playbook advocates for providing sufficient institutional financial aid for community college transfer students in addition to the public financial aid that these students receive. In the interest of enhancing  community college transfer students’ learning experiences and successful acquisition of degrees, I want to highlight the significance of securing comprehensive financial supports, especially for first-generation and low-income community college transfer students, as well as providing academic, social and cultural supports to minimize transfer shock, and workshops or other professional development for faculty and other institutional stakeholders. 

For further rigorous examination of the initiatives related to transfer pathways for community college students to 4-year institutions, especially independent colleges, it would be very helpful to gather data from potential transfer community college students and community college transfer students at independent colleges. 

Overall, this playbook, which scrutinizes the pioneering initiative that is executed by the grantees in six states and provides very grounded and rigorous analysis and suggestions, is an invaluable resource for state, regional, and institutional stakeholders who are engaged in or interested in transfer pathways for liberal arts students. For more further detailed information, you can download the playbook at



Karon, J., Rossman, Dl., Vilorio, E., & Alamuddin, R. (March, 2022). Playbook for transfer pathways to the liberal arts: How to design and implement statewide pathways from community colleges to independent colleges. ITHAKA S+R. 

Pippines, T., Belfield, C. R., Bailey, T. (June, 2019). “Humanities and linear arts education across America’s colleges: How much is there?” Community College Research Center. 


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