At many elite universities, transfer students are an exotic group, comprising a tiny subset of the undergraduate population. Stanford and Yale enrolled 29 new transfers apiece in 2014, Harvard 12. Princeton has not enrolled any transfers since 1990.
Would-be transfer students typically seek to land at public universities, where they find open doors, low in-state tuition and large numbers of classmates who share their life experiences. But some prominent private schools also have established major pipelines for these students. One of the biggest is at the University of Southern California, ranked 23rd on the U.S. News & World Report list of national universities.
USC enrolled 1,435 new transfers in 2014, nearly half the size of its freshman class that fall. A huge share of those transfers came from community colleges.
At USC's 133rd commencement last week in Los Angeles, it awarded 5,662 bachelor's degrees. Fifteen percent, or 831, of those diplomas went to students who started their higher education journey at a community college.
One of them was Nicole Daviau.
"It doesn't feel real," Daviau, 27, said as she prepared to don a cap and gown to accept her degree in business administration. "It's definitely been a long climb. It wasn't like I was told from birth that I was going to go to college, and that I was going to USC."
Daughter of a waitress and a musician — neither of whom has a college degree — Daviau said she dropped out of high school in ninth grade and went through "a teenage angsty phase." She earned her GED in 2008.
Then she enrolled in a public two-year school called Los Angeles Harbor College. She ended up spending nearly six years there, taking music classes and working part time. Lengthy, winding academic pathways are common at community colleges.
Eventually a professor challenged her to apply to USC. She did and was surprised to get in with a substantial financial aid package to offset much of the hefty sticker price. Tuition and fees at USC are about $52,000 a year, not including food, housing and other expenses. Daviau said she will graduate with about $26,000 in student loan debt. "It's definitely manageable," she said.
It was not easy after she got in, Daviau said. "It was a culture shock," she said. "The amount of money thrown around at the school is amazing."
When she thinks back on her childhood, Daviau said she is amazed at the prospect of being a graduate of any college, let alone USC. "I can count on one hand the number of people who went to school with me who actually pushed through higher education," she said.
USC President C.L. Max Nikias said the university views finding and educating students like Daviau as core to its mission. "We feel very strongly that this is one of the things we ought to be doing, providing access to people to get a USC degree," he said. "You give opportunity to kids from all walks of life."
Transfer students are just as successful as those who start as freshmen, he said.
"We cherry-pick the very best graduates from the community colleges," he said. "We want to make sure when they come here they succeed."
Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which promotes college access for disadvantaged students, said top private schools should provide more opportunities to transfer students, especially those from community colleges. "Many colleges don't appreciate the strength of these students," he said.
Levy cited USC, Vassar College and Cornell University as examples of schools that are serious about recruiting transfers.
Princeton announced in February that it will soon (2018 at the earliest) reinstate "a small transfer admissions program as a way to attract students with diverse backgrounds and experiences." The school said its effort will target, among others, military veterans and students from low-income backgrounds, including some who began at community colleges.