California Is Set to Ease Path for Transfer Students

June 02, 2010

California lawmakers appear set to approve a major change in the transfer process for community-college students that would standardize the requirements for transferring from a two-year college to a California State University campus.

Under the proposal, community colleges would offer a redesigned associate degree, starting in the fall of 2011. Students who earn the degree would be promised admission to a Cal State campus, where they could then complete a bachelor's degree by earning 60 units or less.

The bill authorizing the changes, SB 1440, was approved in the State Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 35 to 0. It has generated little opposition in the State Assembly, and college officials expect that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign it into law.

The California proposal is modeled on elements of programs in Florida and Texas, and it reflects a nationwide movement to standardize transfer pathways to increase the rate at which two-year college students go on to complete a four-year degree.

Longstanding Obstacles

In California, the requirements for transferring now vary from campus to campus and have long been decried by researchers and college counselors as difficult for students to understand. Less than a quarter of degree-seeking community-college students successfully transfer or obtain an associate degree, researchers at California State University at Sacramento have estimated.

But getting California's decentralized higher-education systems to adopt common standards for transfer students has been difficult. Jack Scott, chancellor of the state's community colleges, said faculties there and at Cal State have "tended to make decisions more in an academic atmosphere rather than in the interest of students."

"We have waited and waited, and honestly, this has been talked about for over 20 years and it hasn't happened yet," Mr. Scott said. "It's been to the detriment of students."

But the effects of the state's budget crisis, including enrollment restrictions that have prevented thousands of students from transferring to Cal State, have helped establish political support for making the transfer process more efficient, he said.

To earn the new associate degree, students would take a combination of statewide general-education courses and courses specific to the subject they're specializing in. Students who complete the degree would be promised admission to a Cal State campus, though not a specific campus, and would automatically receive credit for courses taken during community college, protecting them from having to retake those courses at Cal State.

Mr. Scott said the proposed new standards would allow the community colleges to serve 44,000 additional students by reducing the number of students who take more courses than they need to transfer. For instance, students who graduate from Cal State after starting in community college take an average of 162 credit hours, he said, compared with the 120 generally needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

Remaining Issues

Researchers who study community-college transfer in California praised the bill as a landmark. But several said that the bill could go further, and that putting it into effect would pose challenges, given the state's budget conditions and enrollment limitations that colleges have imposed.

The bill omits any requirements for the University of California, which has a large degree of autonomy from the Legislature. Susan A. Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions for that system, said the university would see if there were ways the common course work could be integrated into its own admission requirements.

But promising admission to students who complete a transfer associate degree would be a major challenge for the University of California, she said, and highly unlikely at selective campuses like Berkeley or Los Angeles.

Michael W. Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, said the new emphasis on an associate degree as the prime transfer method is a major shift for California. In the 2000-1 academic year, only one out of five students who transferred from a community college had received an associate degree.

"The issue is, What are they going to do about students who don't choose to take the associate degree?" Mr. Kirst said. "That, I think, is a major issue to be worked on."

Mr. Kirst, who said he generally supported the bill, said other parts of the state's transfer process would need similar attention in order to make the process easy to understand.

"The whole system is antiquated," Mr. Kirst said. The technology of the online tool students use to check transfer requirements, he said, "hasn't been updated in 15 years. The bill is going to give some momentum, but there are a lot of complexities to be worked out."