updated 3/6/2006 9:02:19 PM ET 2006-03-07T02:02:19

The signs are everywhere, from the BMWs parked on campus, to the students' designer cell phones, to the number of families paying full price even as tuition and fees climb past $40,000. The most prestigious colleges are overwhelmingly attended by the wealthy.

It's a problem colleges are speaking about more frankly and have tried to address with more financial aid, but with only mixed success. At the most selective schools, a 2003 study found, just 3 percent of students came from the poorest socio-economic quarter of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.

Now, a small group of selective colleges is turning its attention to what may be an untapped reservoir of able, low-income students: the 6.5 million people who attend community colleges. Historically, those students have been ignored by elite colleges, which recruit mostly at high schools and often accept few or no transfers because they want to offer a distinctive four-year experience.

8 schools take the lead
Five well-known private colleges and three highly selective public schools — the flagship campuses of the universities of Michigan, California and North Carolina — were to announce plans Monday to accommodate a total of about 1,100 more community college transfer students from low- to moderate-income families over the next four years. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will contribute about $7 million for support programs, while the colleges will spend more than $20 million of their own money on support programs and financial aid.

The private colleges participating are Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Bucknell, Cornell and the University of Southern California.

Though the numbers amount to a relative handful — with UC Berkeley taking by far the most transfers — the hope is that the variety and prestige of the schools involved will persuade others to take a chance on students who have started at two-year schools for financial or family reasons.

"There's a lot of focus at Harvard and lots of other places on the fact that there are no low-income students at those schools, or very few," said Joshua Wyner, the Cooke Foundation's vice president for programs. "The place where a lot of them are that nobody seems to be looking is community colleges."

A 2005 Department of Education study found more than one-third of 12th graders in 1992 who went first to community college and earned more than 10 credits eventually transferred to a four-year college. But few go to the most selective schools. On those campuses, typically only about one in 1,000 students transferred from a two-year school, Wyner said.

Some of the participating colleges, like Cal and Mount Holyoke, already have close ties with "feeder" community colleges and will expand existing programs. Mount Holyoke, a women's college in Massachusetts, will provide a full-time academic counselor inside nearby Holyoke Community College to identify transfer candidates and help them prepare. It hopes to add about 10 slots per year.

Cal, which already has a wide pipeline from the state's community colleges, will add about 480 slots, and aims to provide preparatory services to 1,400 candidates.

Other participating schools have not previously had strong community college ties. UNC-Chapel Hill typically takes 650 transfer students annually, but only about one-quarter come from community colleges. The university will work closely with three nearby schools, and hopes to enroll about 25 from each community college per year.

This is not charity’
Stephen Farmer, UNC's assistant provost and director of undergraduate admissions, believes most community college students in North Carolina would need help to thrive at Chapel Hill. But with assistance, he says, they can succeed.

"This is not charity on the part of Carolina," Farmer said.

At private Bucknell, vice president for enrollment management Kurt Thiede says his college faces growing competition from honors programs at state universities. It needs high-achieving community college students to maintain quality without cutting enrollment. Typically, only a handful of Bucknell's 30 or so transfers per year come from community colleges, but it aims to increase that number.

"I think the last time campuses really enriched themselves was the GI bill, when people came back from the war," Thiede said. With changing demographics and rising college prices, "this is a way that places like Bucknell can keep their current status in terms of quality but also enrich their campuses in a way that frankly hasn't happened in 30 or 40 years."

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