The Secret Path to the Ivy League

By Richard S. Hyland

Each year a new wave of high school students apply to college with the hope of gaining acceptance to a selective college or university. Of course where there is opportunity and prestige there is also competition, and perhaps nowhere is this more manifest than in gaining entrance into a top school.  Many students, despite having a strong background in high school are edged out in the fierce competition. 

Fully ninety-five percent of students who gain entrance to Princeton and Yale each year are in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes, and the other six Ivies are similarly weighted with top students.  Those students not in the top ten percent may include legacies (students whose parents attended the same school), students from states with lower representation at that particular school (think Alaska) or students who have other strengths like unique creative abilities or a fresh perspective as demonstrated in their admissions essays.  This leaves many excellent and highly qualified students out in the cold. 

Most students who are rejected from their first choice simply move on to their second or third choice schools, while others may appeal the decision.  (Many, though not all, top schools offer applicants the ability to appeal the decision, but most students do not gain entry upon appeal according to the College Board.)

Another, less obvious way to gain entry to a top tier school is to start at a community college.  Perceptions of community colleges vary greatly depending on whom you ask, but it might be surprising to some that community college students regularly transfer to top ranked four-year colleges.  For parents, Community colleges have great appeal due to their affordability, academic support, and proximity to home among other things.  But a lesser known benefit is that they can also serve as an alternate pathway into elite colleges. 

While hard statistics on the number of students who gain acceptance to top schools in this way are hard to come by.  “Parents and students have been using this approach forever,” says Professor John Christesen, Chairman of the Department of Business at Westchester Community College.  “Over the years, many of our best students have gone on to great schools like Wharton [University of Pennsylvania], NYU, Clarkson and ILR [the School of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell]. This year we have a handful of alumni attending Cornell.”

Not far from Westchester, Rockland Community College also has many success stories.  On average ten to twelve students transfer from RCC to the NYU Steinhard School of Education on scholarships each year.  “For the last two years in a row one of our students has received a full scholarship to Harvard,” offers Len Gersten from the Student Services department at RCC.  “Each year we have students who transfer to Columbia, Brown, and Cornell.”

Author Peter Sacks suggests that the eventual payoff to students who attend elite colleges – those from of all ethnic backgrounds – can be extraordinary.  Graduates of elite schools out-earn counterparts nationwide by almost $40,000 a year and are far more likely to enter highly paid, prestigious professions. According to Sacks, 3 percent of college graduates nationally become physicians, while 15 percent of graduates from prestigious colleges do so.  With so much at stake, it is no surprise that students and parents from all backgrounds are desirous of these colleges.

If the elite colleges can afford to be so selective, one might wonder why they accept transfer students at all.  There are in fact several benefits these colleges gain by admitting transfer students.  First, it can alleviate the need for student housing given the fact that freshman tend to require on-campus housing more than upper classmen – and transfer students often come in as juniors.  It can also help offset attrition and increase enrollment in higher-level courses. 

According to Cathleen Sheils, Associate Director and Transfer Coordinator at Cornell University, “Community College students bring their unique experiences to their transfer University.  Often they have a breadth of leadership and work experience and are able to transition by getting involved in student organizations, research labs and on campus employment at their four year University.”

According to New York University’s website, roughly 32% of those who applied to the school as freshman in 2003 were accepted.  Fully 35% of the 4,692 students who applied for transfer to NYU in the same year were accepted.  The percentages are clearly, if only slightly, in favor of the transfer student.  Parents and students in the know can, and do take advantage of this fact. 

Although they tend to emphasize their differences, most colleges and universities look for similar traits in a prospective student.  A strong academic record, good leadership skills, extracurricular activities, high SAT scores, community service, strong writing skills, and a strong desire to succeed, are some of the hallmarks of a successful applicant.  If a student is missing some of these attributes in high school, a community college can offer another chance to demonstrate these abilities and enhance an application.

Shiels suggests that community college students wishing to transfer to selective colleges should be aware of the transfer requirements and that selection is not solely based on GPA: “Selection is based, more importantly on the courses a student has completed.  We are looking for solid academic achievement, grades of B or better in liberal arts courses, a clear sense of a student’s academic interest and fit with our University clearly expressed in the application essay, and leadership experience.” She adds “We see a concern about affordability of a four year education and not completing understanding how financial aid is awarded and available.   There is a need for Community College advisors and faculty to become aware of and share the breadth of transfer opportunities with their high achieving students early in the process, as transferring takes planning.”

In his book Accept My Kid, Please! Author Hank Herman describes the stress and anxiety felt by parents and their children in navigating the application process.  He notes that parents can put undue pressure on their children to achieve things that they themselves have not been able to accomplish. Westchester County, known for its wealthy and über-competitive residents, boasts some of the best high schools in the country, and so expectations can be high. 

In the past community colleges were seen as a place for students with limited options, but that perception has changed significantly in recent years.  As the economy flounders and the cost of a four-year degree continues to rise – some estimates indicate that students entering kindergarten this year will spend over of $200,000 for a four year degree at a private college when they reach college age –  more parents and students are looking to the community college as the secret path to the Ivy League.   

About the Author

Mr. Hyland is currently a Professor of Business at Westchester Community College.  He is an alumnus of Westchester Community College, and transferred to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a BS in Economics.  He earned a doctoral degree from Columbia University Teachers College and lives in Port Chester, NY with his three children.

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