Since 1990, Princeton University has not admitted transfer students -- even as a growing number of colleges have embraced transfer admissions as a way to attract a more diverse student body than is possible relying on full-time freshman enrollment.
On Tuesday, the university announced plans to change. The university, as part of a new strategic plan, said that it will have a transfer plan in place by 2018. The strategic plan will also result in an additional 125 students being admitted each year (through a variety of means besides transfer). When four classes are admitted, the existing number of undergraduates, 5,200, will go up by 500. In expanding, the university said that it would make "a concerted effort to identify and attract more students from low-income families and ensure these students receive the support they need once they are on campus." (This is the second time in a decade that Princeton has increased the size of its undergraduate student body and linked those increases to efforts to diversify.)
In the strategic plan, Princeton linked the resumption of transfer admissions to diversity goals. "Experience at other universities shows that transfer programs can provide a vehicle to attract students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, such as qualified military veterans and students from low-income backgrounds, including some who might begin their careers at community colleges," the plan says.
That may not be the only motivation. Princeton alumni have for years complained that the university's ban on transfer admissions has hurt athletic programs, as other Ivy institutions have admitted outstanding athletes as transfers.
Whatever the motivation, the tendency of the most competitive colleges on transfer admissions has been to have the transfer option, but to admit incredibly few students that way -- with the admission rate even lower that that of freshman admissions at these institutions.
Yale University, for example, says that it receives more than 1,000 transfer applications for only 20 to 30 slots. Stanford University admits a similar number of transfer students, and says that the admit rate tends to be between 1 and 4 percent. (There are other competitive colleges, notably women's colleges such as Mount Holyoke College, that have for years made more of a push in transfer admissions from community colleges.)
Experts on transfer stress that the transfer policies that have the greatest impact are those of public higher education systems, which educate more students than do private colleges and which -- in many states -- assume that large numbers of eventual bachelor's degree recipients will start at community colleges.
Even so, experts said Princeton's move was significant.
Janet L. Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, at the University of North Georgia, said that the timing of Princeton's announcement "could not be more perfect" because her institute's advisory board will this week be discussing the topic of transfer students at elite private institutions. She said she is seeing more private colleges, even institutions that are highly competitive in admissions, start to talk about admitting more transfer students.
Princeton's shift, she said, "adds to the growing narrative that transfer students matter, that they add value to a campus community, and that are capable of succeeding at elite institutions," Marling said.
Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College of Columbia University, studies community college transfers. He said via email that the traditional admissions model at elite private colleges makes it "extremely difficult" for low-income students to be admitted. Talent that might not be identified among high school seniors could well be identified among community college students, he said, and diversify colleges. "I think Princeton's announcement could be significant in that it could send a message to other elite privates that transfer is a good thing to do (and implicitly that transfer students can hack it at Princeton)," he said.
Sarah Zauner helps colleges that use the EAB's consulting services on transfer and community college student success issues. She said in the last year she has received an increasing number of requests from competitive private colleges that "want to look at transfer strategy." (EAB was formerly known as the Education Advisory Board.)
Zauner applauds the interest. Many students -- especially first-generation, low-income and minority students -- have a variety of reasons to start college close to home, many times at a community college. Many of these students can succeed at elite institutions, she said, but only if someone recruits and admits them. "These students provide a great way to expand diversity" of all kinds in a college's student body, she said.
For these programs to work, she said, colleges need to move to admit more transfer students, and this is especially the case at elite institutions, public and private. "For people to see Princeton embracing this is important," she said.
Zauner quipped that she has "some bias" on the importance of the community college transfer route. Her first college courses were at Lane Community College, in Oregon. She graduated from the University of Virginia.