USC President to others: Recruit more community college students

Says efforts connect colleges to local communities and promote diversity

C. L. Max Nikias, the president of the University of Southern California, argues in the Washington Post that elite research universities should recruit more community college students in order to build socioeconomic diversity and combat the misperception they are a "club for society's most affluent."

Many people believe that elite colleges saddle students with large amounts of debt and are closed off to society's most disadvantaged, Nikias says. He encourages elite research universities to do more than just correct the factual record; they should actively recruit academically qualified community college students.

Developing collaborative degree programs among community colleges and four-year institutions

Lack of socioeconomic diversity on campus

Elite research universities have a perception problem. The public critiques universities for creating high student debt and for being "bastions of privilege," Nikias writes.

Many of these concerns are overblown or unfounded, he argues. For instance, the default rate on student loans for graduates of large private research universities is only 2.5%, far lower than the national average of nearly 14%. Furthermore, about 60% of graduates from top private research institutions graduate with no debt at all—and those that do only have about $27,000 on average, as of 2012.

However, accusations that colleges are not socioeconomically diverse may have some truth. Only 50,000 or so students—of the 3 million that graduate from high school annually—have the privilege of attending an elite institution their first year. Less than 20% of undergraduates at the Association of American Universities' elite private research schools come from low-income households. In 2012, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that many high-achieving, low-income students lack guidance during the college application process, and do not apply at all.

High school wealth best predicts college enrollment—and persistence

Seize the second chance

Reaching out to community college graduates opens up a second opportunity to recruit those high-achieving students. A 2006 study found fewer than one in 1,000 students at selective private universities are community college transfers—but, Nikias warns, that does not mean these students are not qualified.

USC has seen benefits from their investment in recruiting more community college students in the past several years, Nikias writes. Community college transfer students have a graduation rate of 91%, roughly in line with other students.

Recruiting community college students has also given USC new connections to its own local community. Students who transfer from local community colleges are more likely to become "role models within their communities," he reports.

Ultimately, Nikias argues, recruiting more community college students reinforces the college's mission to become "a place for the most talented, whoever they are and wherever they may come from, to come together and cultivate their strengths" (Nikias, Washington Post, 10/23).

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