Community College Admissions at 5Cs: Tensions between Holistic Review and Campus Diversity

By Katya Pollock (PO’21)

In July 2018, 36 independent California colleges and universities signed an agreement to guarantee admission for California community college students who have completed at least 60 semester units in an eligible major. The agreement, called the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) Commitment, aims to reduce uncertainty for students entering community colleges who plan to transfer to four-year institutions upon graduation. By guaranteeing admission to a four-year institution which will recognize a community college student’s junior class standing, the ADT Commitment makes it easier for these students to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years. All five undergraduate Claremont Colleges have declined to participate in the ADT Commitment, though they maintain public positions in favor of enrolling qualified community college transfer students. The case brings into question the merits of uniformly applying holistic admissions evaluation where it may serve to hinder, rather than enhance, efforts to strengthen campus diversity.

Since 2012, students at California community colleges who complete either an Associate in Arts for Transfer (AA-T) or Associate in Science for Transfer (AS-T) degree are guaranteed acceptance to a California State University campus. The new ADT Commitment marks a significant expansion of the original ADT program to dozens of independent colleges and universities, including Whittier College and Pepperdine University. Some participating institutions have stipulated that students pursuing guaranteed admission complete additional, institution-specific requirements, most often religious or service-related courses.

Community colleges can offer reduced tuition costs, a simplified admissions process, and an easier transition between high school and college than private four-year institutions like the Claremont Colleges. Since the 2014-15 academic year, the number of degree-seeking students enrolled in community colleges in California has increased by more than 10%, reflecting the growing appeal of community colleges as an alternative to private and public four-year institutions. Many highly selective four-year colleges and universities have expressed preference for accomplished community college transfer applicants in admissions processes, citing primarily the value such students add to the socioeconomic diversity of a campus.

Pomona, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, and Harvey Mudd Colleges declined to participate in the ADT program because it runs in conflict with the institutions’ commitments to holistic application review, according to representatives from each college. Scripps College declined to participate in the program because of concerns about the number of qualified applicants exceeding the school’s capacity for transfer students, according to the school’s Director of Admission.

The ADT Commitment does not allow participating institutions to consider the quality of applicants’ on-campus or off-campus extracurricular activities or recommendation letters when determining admission, which are key components of each college’s transfer admissions process. Whittier College and Pepperdine University both signed the ADT Commitment while maintaining holistic application evaluation processes similar to the Claremont Colleges for all other students.

Despite declining to participate in the ADT Commitment, several Claremont Colleges continue to prioritize community college applicants in their admissions processes. Pomona College, Pitzer College, and Scripps College hold agreements with the Honors Transfer Council of California, which aims to assist students enrolled in honors programs at community colleges in transferring to four-year institutions. According to the Pomona Agreement for Transfer Honors (PATH), Pomona College gives priority consideration for admissions to California community college honors students with a 3.5 GPA or higher in honors classes, guarantees an opportunity for PATH transfer students to live with other transfer students, and designates an admissions liaison to member community colleges. In 2017 and 2018, roughly one-third of transfer applicants admitted to Pomona College were community college students, according to Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions Tina Brooks. The agreements between the Honors Transfer Council, Scripps College, Pitzer College, and Pomona College are designed to attract more honors community college transfer applicants to the schools and assist admitted transfer students in graduating within four years.

Still, the Claremont Colleges’ and other independent institutions’ decisions to not participate in the ADT Commitment has drawn disapproval from community college administrators. At a board meeting of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), the chancellor of the California community college system called attention to USC and Stanford, private institutions which, like the Claremont Colleges, receive state funding but declined to participate in the program. California community college representatives have suggested that four-year institutions which receive state funding have an obligation to support California community college through initiatives such as the ADT Commitment.

Although Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, Pomona, and Harvey Mudd Colleges have each rejected the ADT Commitment on the basis of upholding their holistic admissions processes, Whittier College and Pepperdine University show that guaranteeing admission to qualified transfer students is not in direct conflict with the employment of holistic application evaluation for most applicants. The Claremont Colleges’ dedication to holistic application evaluation, so often avowed as an approach which better recognizes the value of student diversity, may in the case of California community college transfer students act only as an unnecessary obstacle to strengthening diversity on campus.

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