Navigating the path from a community college to a prestigious private university

As private four-year colleges seek ways to increase access, success, and equity, a strategy emerges: expanding the community college transfer pipeline. Of the estimated 450,000 students who moved from a community college to a four-year campus in 2017, only 23 percent joined a private institution. In contrast, private colleges enroll 30 percent of all incoming four-year students, indicating that community college transfers are under-represented.

To learn what works from leaders and students, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program presents two interviews. For this first installment, the team interviewed Omar Musa Pasha, a graduate of Rice University, one of America’s leading private universities. Musa Pasha, who is studying to become a doctor, served as the president of the Rice Transfer Student Association.

Omar Musa is holding a poster featuring some of his work in Pasha Rice.When I first thought about transferring to college for the first four years, I googled the “top schools in Texas.” When Rice University arrived, I thought, “Can I really go there?” Rice is distinguished by its student-faculty ratio and strong academic and research opportunities. I read about the residential college system — the way each college has its own advisors and student government, which makes it feel like Hogwarts. But I found that the numbers were alarming: Rice rejected nine out of every 10 applicants. Moreover, I didn’t see Rice at the college fair in my community college, so I assumed they were out of my league.

As soon as I came to the United States with my family from Saudi Arabia at the age of 17, I started thinking about college. Deciding to become a physician, I envisioned starting a four-year university, but the application deadline passed mostly when I arrived in Texas. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to embark on my journey through Houston Community College’s honors program. Over the two years there, I have benefited from a tight team of students and a network of mentors, staff and faculty who support each step. The professors have encouraged me to get involved in extracurricular and leadership opportunities and the director of Honors College has urged me to apply to reputed universities. I decided to appeal to Rice one afternoon after a counselor at Houston Community College’s Writing Center mentioned that her daughter was going to Vanderbilt. At the time, it seemed like a possibility to go to school like Vanderbilt or Rice.

Doubts resurfaced when I promised Rice: How would I fit into this traditional campus if I entered as a junior two years later than most students? Immediately, though, the high-class fellow advisers in my orientation group made me feel part of the culture. They became my family in that first year, helping me understand the degree requirements, the options I needed, the resources I could use and the curriculum opportunities I should consider.

During my first few weeks on campus, I also saw ways that universities like Rice could make the transfer experience even better. An example: Transfer students get a lot of information on the first day; It’s easy to forget about resources and opportunities, so reminders help. Overwhelmed by my grades in that first semester, I realized that I needed to refine my study habits. Rice resources like peer advisors, study groups and office hours were not ideal in my community college, as students had to leave immediately after class to take care of work or family. At Rice, I meet with my Academic Advisor every few weeks to discuss my progress and resources that I can use to tackle any challenge. With these regular visits, I became more proficient with my study habits, and my grades improved significantly.

Outside of the classroom, I concentrated on research, benefiting from a one-minute ride to Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world, across the street from Rice Campus. Also, I have worked with administrators on various initiatives as President of the Rice Transfer Student Association. When I applied, the information sessions were directed for first-year, first-time college students and parents. In my first few weeks, I pitched a transfer-specific information session to the admissions director. We have worked closely over the next year with academics (which is why community college students transfer), residential college experiences, and presentations on post-graduation results. By showing students what transfers they do after graduation, we signal potential transfers that they can successfully navigate and improve after four years of experience.

Omar Musa Pasha, an olive-skinned man with glasses and beard in his graduation dress and hat.As I reflect on my time at Rice, I think about the lessons I learned. If anyone is different for a four-year college, it is: Ask students to keep their curriculum from community college courses, as these are extremely important when applying for transfer credit. Transfer students often find out too late that credit from some classes is not automatically accepted. I had to apply for courses in almost every department by navigating the complex credit equivalent rules, assessment and transfer conditions. Result: I was unable to transfer some credits and needed an extra year to retake a course order to earn my degree.

I hope that private four-year schools can make community college transfers a success and overcome some obstacles to ensure that they can become role models for all students. Of course, a helpful academic advisor can make a huge difference when it comes to rough spots. I certainly had one, and I was grateful that she was at my graduation a few weeks ago, to see her impact.

For effective strategies to use on your campus, consider six tips from Omar based on his relocation experience:

  • Make sure your institution is visible and present in places where there are community college students, such as college fairs and open houses, especially early in the admissions process.
  • Create awareness of your institution among community college advisors and professors, who have a major influence on students’ decisions about where to move.
  • Taylor Information Sessions for Transfer Students, focusing on academics, campus experiences, specific resources for transfer needs on your campus, and transfer alumni success stories. Offer contact information for faculty and advisors and encourage their students to be responsive to questions.
  • Make sure you share engagement opportunities with academic, social and professional resource and transfer students, even at the beginning of their community college day.
  • Provide transfer students with leadership opportunities in university-wide committees and groups where they can share perspectives to strengthen their own feelings.
  • As soon as students indicate interest in your institution, make available transfer credit advisors to help you navigate the credit transfer process, especially since private four-year colleges usually do not have articulation agreements with community colleges.

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