04/09/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Are We Letting Community College Transfer Students Down?

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate":

By Antar Tichavakunda and William G. Tierney

You are a student whose parents can't afford paying your way through college, so you take a part-time job to pay for the lower tuition at a community college. You decide to transfer from the community college to a four-year university, but you don't apply for California's transfer entitlement grant, which provides up to $7,000 a year for transfer students.

This doesn't add up. If finances played a huge role in your decision to attend community college in the first place, why would you suddenly pass up an opportunity to get an extra $7,000 for college at your new, more expensive, school?

The correct answer could result in more students transferring from community colleges, more university graduates, more students with less debt, and the state with more citizens prepared for high paying jobs.

California's transfer entitlement grant provides up to $7,000 to cover school fees for students transferring to one of California's in-state four-year institutions. Of the over 23,600 students intending to transfer, 17,000 applied and 12,000 students qualified for the grant in the 2011-2012 school-year. The bulk of these students transferred to California State University (CSU) and the rest went to the University of California (UC) and private colleges. Over 6,000 students failed to even complete the application. This has implications for higher education all across the country. The policy is good, but its execution is not.

Paul Newman's tormentor famously noted in Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." The same might be said today. A lack of marketing of the program to California's community college students is essentially a failure to communicate.

If a student at a California community college has at least a 2.4 GPA, is under 28, and has financial need, then he/she is eligible for the grant. After receiving the preliminary notice of eligibility, the student just needs to send additional personal information to the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC).

Less than half of the 15,000 students who intended to transfer to a CSU in a particular year actually received the grant, either because they did not finish their application or because their low GPA or high family income made them ineligible. A researcher for CSAC explained that the main reason for the gulf between applicants and recipients is that, "the student is unable to affirm that he or she meets the eligibility requirements for the program."

This dilemma involves both CSAC which provides the grants, and the community colleges, which are in the position to encourage applications for the grant. CSAC and California Community Colleges (CCC) should team-up to explore creative possibilities of informing students of the award process. State investment in a third-party marketing campaign geared to transfer students could yield large returns for California. And if it works in California then it will work elsewhere. More students, numbering in the thousands in California and tens of thousands if this were extended across the country, could take advantage of this award and graduate from a four-year college with less debt.

The transfer entitlement grant could be the difference between transfer students taking out a loan they will have to pay back or graduating debt free. More importantly, the grant could be just the incentive a student needs to make the decision to transfer to a university. The creation of the transfer entitlement grant is innovative. But creation is only the first step. An innovative program's success is contingent upon continued marketing and research. We can't afford a failure to communicate.