Capacity Constraints in California’s Public Universities: A Factor Impeding Transfer?

September 2003

Transfer in California

California ranks among the leaders nationally in college attendance, both in numbers and in the percentage of high school students going on to postsecondary education. This noteworthy accomplishment is largely due to California’s extensive community college system with its open admissions policy. California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education laid out a three-tiered system of higher education that included the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC), and defined attendance criteria for each segment according to students’ level of preparation and academic performance. The Master Plan reserved four-year college attendance for its most well prepared and qualified students. However, all students were offered an opportunity to pursue a four-year degree by first attending a community college. After successfully fulfilling a minimum set of requirements, these students were guaranteed a place at one of the state’s public four-year institutions. This transfer mechanism was a key concept that underpinned the California dream of higher education for its citizens, and linked its goals of access and affordability.

Despite its many successes, California has struggled to meet the challenge posed by significant growth in enrollment. While California’s total population is expected to increase by 17 percent between 2000 and 2010,2 enrollment in the state’s public institutions of higher education is projected to increase by more than 28 percent over the same period. Community college enrollment has already grown by 20 percent over the past 10 years; however, the number of students successfully transferring to the state’s public four-year institutions has remained remarkably flat – fluctuating between 50,000 and 60,000 students per year. The stagnant numbers persist despite significant investment by the state in efforts aimed at increasing the number of community college students successfully transferring to four-year institutions.

Model of Transfer Process

The number of transfer students is a function of three components: the supply of students intending to transfer, the success of the transfer function in preparing those students, and the ability of receiving four-year institutions to accommodate those students. This Pipeline-Process-Capacity Model is further defined:

Pipeline: The number of community college students that intend to transfer to a four-year institution is dependent on a number of factors, including student aspirations, social capital reflecting family and other support networks and their familiarity with higher education options, outreach efforts to recruit transfer students, and economic variables affecting students’ perceptions of alternatives to pursuing the baccalaureate via the transfer process.

Process: Transfer processes include the mechanisms established to facilitate the transfer of students from community colleges. These may include articulation agreements regarding eligible coursework that satisfies entrance requirements at the receiving four-year institutions, counseling efforts at the community college level, communications between the transfer coordinators at the community colleges and the transfer admissions directors at the receiving institutions, special admission programs between community colleges and four-year institutions, and data collection and information sharing among the various institutions. Student and institutional efforts to ensure students’ academic preparation for transfer are also critical.

Capacity: Transfer capacity can become limited at receiving institutions if campuses or programs become overenrolled or “impacted,” hampering their ability to accommodate more students. When a program is overenrolled, additional restrictions or requirements are usually imposed, thereby increasing selectivity in the admissions process. The basic general education (GE) requirements for transfer are:

  • UC. Minimum 2.4 GPA and 60 transferable semester units, 1 advanced Math course or quantitative reasoning, 4 transferable courses from at least 2 of the following areas: arts and humanities, social sciences, behavioral sciences, or physical or biological sciences
  • CSU. Minimum 2.0 GPA and 56 transferable units; of the 56 units, 30 must be in general education courses to include one course in oral communication, one course in written communication, one course in critical thinking and one course in math/quantitative reasoning above the level of intermediate algebra.

If an eligible student applies to an impacted campus and is not accepted, efforts are made to redirect or refer the student to a campus where there is an opening in the student’s field of interest. If applying to an impacted program, students may be admitted at the campus of their choice, but be placed in another area of study that is not impacted, or may be redirected or referred to another campus where that major is available.

In a 2002 report to the state Legislature, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office suggested that the number of transfers in recent years may reflect capacity constraints in the CSU and UC more than ineffectiveness in the transfer function of the community colleges. The report notes that the number of impacted programs and campuses within the UC and CSU systems has increased, creating the possibility that potential transfer students are being shut out of the state’s senior institutions through increases in the requirements for transfer. This research was undertaken to explore that proposition.

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