THE BLOG
01/20/2015 08:02 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

President's Plan for Free Two-Year Community College Must Support High-Achieving, Low-Income Students Planning to Transfer

President Obama took a bold step toward making America more competitive in the 21st Century global marketplace by unveiling plans to make community college free for two years for responsible students. If it gains buy-in from stakeholders, it could have a profound positive impact on the country's overall college completion rate.

But as encouraging as his "America's College Promise" proposal is, the bigger picture remains incomplete, especially for high-achieving, low-income students seeking to transfer after two years--many of whom embody our nation's greatest strengths: native ability and persistence.

A recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shows that many more community college students could succeed at four-year colleges and universities than are given the chance. Significant numbers of academically gifted community college students start their postsecondary education at two-year institutions for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with their ability. Once at community college, however, these students are often unable to transfer to four-year bachelor's degree-granting institutions despite their documented ability, because they lack information, advising, financial support, and opportunity.

Many educators hold the mistaken belief that high achievers are capable of finding their way on their own. Repeated studies have shown that these students are actually quite fragile, with many never even applying to college, and many of those who are admitted drop out or take much longer to graduate. High schools, community colleges and four-year institutions need to work together to provide transfer-specific orientation and subsequent counseling to reduce the "transfer shock" that can derail low-income students who are otherwise capable of succeeding. In a sample of high-achieving, low-income students who transferred to a four-year institution, over 90 percent found it "challenging" to manage their new academic work load, and 20 percent considered dropping out.

Our studies also found that the counseling is effective in deterring dropouts. Ninety-seven percent of the Cooke Scholars ultimately graduate; 76 percent of them graduate from their four-year colleges with cumulative grade point averages higher than 3.5. But they receive counseling, financial support and other services. Students who started with similar credentials and did not receive our foundation's support, had a much lower graduation rate, did not attend as selective institutions, and took longer to graduate. The message is clear: if the support is lacking, students drop out. If it's there, they persevere, and even thrive.

But even students who manage to get admitted too often face unexpected financial challenges: scholarship aid offered by four-year colleges to transfer students is often much less than what they offer to freshmen coming straight out of high school entering the same college or university. The unfairness is palpable.

For the President's plan to have a maximum return on investment, we also need to focus on supporting students transferring from community colleges. We piloted a program called the Community College Transfer Initiative (CCTI), which had the long-term goal of promoting sustainable increases in the number of high-achieving, low- to moderate-income community college students at the nation's most selective four-year institutions. From 2007 to 2010, an additional 1,100 low-income transfer students entered eight CCTI partner schools, and these students as a cohort were unequivocally successful: on average, they maintained grade point averages above a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale and 79 percent planned to attend a professional or graduate school.

I'm pleased to see leaders of both parties acknowledge the important role community colleges will play America's future. Free public education ending with the 12th grade has always been an arbitrary articulation point, and the President's proposal can only strengthen our country, improve income distribution and increase the skills of the workforce. Most importantly, transfer students will not be held back from reaching their potential simply in virtue of their having begun their academic careers at a two-year institution. However, our support must extend into the junior and senior years for those who have financial need and seek to transfer; otherwise, we're wasting much of the opportunity represented by the America's College Promise program.

Mr. Levy, executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving students from low-income families, was New York City schools chancellor in 2000-02.