Confession of the Dean of a Community College

If you’re a first-generation college student at a community college, and you’re wondering where to move after an associate’s degree, which of the following messages might interest you?

  1. We have a great program, and we take a lot of transfer students every year.

  2. We have a great program and we guarantee admission to transfer students who have graduated 3.0 or better.

Sometimes we lose sight of the appeal of security. “Guarantee” is a magic word. It’s not as strong as the “free”, but it carries weight. For a student that is not sure about the whole process and who does not want to apply to a dozen schools, message b provides security and clarity. If my grades are good enough, I’m fine. I don’t have to be surprised, or twist myself into trying to improve my chances. The criteria are understandable, and I know if I meet them.

As any experienced consumer knows, most guarantees come with asterisks. These stars can cover a lot of land. Light up the bar enough times with an asterisk and you start distrusting words like “free” or “guaranteed”. That’s where option b, above, is particularly interesting. This puts the qualifier in front, in a language that is easy to understand.

Institutionally, of course, there is a danger in transparent guarantees. They rest on certain assumptions about the situation. What if the guarantee is far more successful than initially imagined, and flooded with more applicants than a school can manage? On the other hand, sudden new supply constraints – say, an epidemic or a state budget cut – could make even predictable demand problematic. I understand the institutional reluctance to make promises when the situation is uncertain, which is usually the case.

Community colleges, oddly enough, do not always capitalize on guaranteed admissions. We usually talk about “open” or “open-door” admissions and use the language of “access”. This would be at least equally true if we offered “guaranteed” admission. If you have a high school diploma or equivalent (such as a GED), you are admitted.

For four-year schools to which students transfer, however, messaging should be easy. Coming out of the painful experience of the last few years, there is a real market for peace of mind. I offer this advice to any partner who is willing to take it. Students will thank with their feet.

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