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Crafting a Student-Centered Transfer Process in California: Lessons from Other States

August 2009

California is Facing a Shortage of College-Educated Workers 

The supply of workers with a bachelor’s degree will not meet the projected demands due to the retirement of the highly-educated baby boom generation and the reduced migration of college-educated workers into California from other states and countries. Under current trends, by 2025 there will be one million fewer college graduates than are needed in the workforce. This gap could be narrowed by increased college attendance rates, increased transfer rates from community colleges to four-year universities, and increased graduation rates from universities. 

Improving Community College Transfer Rates is Key

In California, community colleges play a major role in producing baccalaureate degrees. Under the Master Plan for Higher Education, the vast majority of college students in California begin their college education in a community college. Access to the baccalaureate for these students is provided through the transfer process.

While a large number of university graduates are community college transfers, data on transfer rates show that only a small percentage of students who begin in community colleges successfully transfer. When students do transfer, the process is often inefficient or incomplete. Some students transfer with many units that don’t count toward the specific requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Others transfer without completing a transfer curriculum, reducing the potential cost-efficiency benefits of completing lower division requirements in the lower-cost community college system. Finally, many students transfer to a four-year university without earning an associate degree, and those who do not graduate are left without any degree. 

With budget cuts creating additional barriers to college completion for students and institutions, it is important to improve the transfer process so transfer students will move efficiently along a well-defined transfer pathway.

Complex Transfer Process Poses Hurdles for Students

The decentralized, segmental structure of California higher education and the strong tradition of local faculty autonomy over curriculum have set the framework for transfer policies and made it difficult to engage in comprehensive, state-level planning. The result has been campus-to-campus rather than system-wide course transferability agreements. Faculty at each college and university are responsible for setting each campus’s program requirements, which leads to differing lower division major prerequisites, even within the same major within the same system. Each university system emphasizes a different general education pattern, contributing to the complexity of transfer options and requirements that are often confusing to students. With budget cuts and enrollment pressures leading to more crowded and “impacted” majors, community college students can find transfer admission requirements to have changed just when they think they have met them. In short, transfer requirements can present a blurry and moving target for students seeking to transfer. Such a complex process is especially confusing to underprepared and first-generation students, who predominate in the community colleges. The community colleges do not have a robust network of support services, including an adequate number of counselors and advisors, to help students navigate through the complex transfer process. Recent reform efforts have seen little success and have arguably added more complexity to the transfer process because they have been limited to the traditional paradigm of local agreements rather than statewide patterns.

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Authors: Colleen Moore, Nancy Shulock, and Cristy Jensen

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