Diminishing Access to the Baccalaureate through Transfer: The Impact of State Policies and Implications for California

April 2004

The ability to transfer from a community college to a four-year university is at the core of California’s Master Plan promise of access to higher education. Transfer is vitally important in California because community colleges enroll three-fourths of the state’s college students and an even larger share of African American and Latino college students. But budget constraints and enrollment pressures have led to a set of policy responses that are reducing access to the baccalaureate for the state’s underrepresented students, whose educational attainment is critical to the state’s economic and civic health.

The pathway to transfer is narrowing due to:

  • budget-related enrollment restrictions in all three segments;
  • increasing transfer admissions criteria;
  • decreasing college affordability; and
  • crowding out of traditional community college students by other students.

The state already has an inadequate record of postsecondary educational achievement relative to other states and has persistent achievement gaps across population groups. Lawmakers must address the rising barriers to transfer if the state is to educate its people to meet the demands of the new century for educated citizens and a competitive workforce.

Accordingly, we raise a set of questions in three areas that deserve the attention of policymakers:

  • the role of the community colleges in lower division preparation;
  • the capacity of four-year institutions to accommodate transfer students; and
  • the viability of current approaches to balancing transfer with the variety of other missions assigned to the community colleges.

Policymakers and advisors tend to assume that the community colleges provide a safety net for everyone who does not gain initial access to a university. This paper questions whether the community colleges have the funding or the institutional capacity to fulfill the expectations that have been set for them. It points out some value conflicts in asking the colleges to serve both as a safety net for the educationally disadvantaged and as an efficient alternative for the first two years of a university education. It urges that more attention be given to how institutional capacity across postsecondary education can best be used to improve student success.

Our purpose is to help policymakers understand the consequences of their policy decisions. Even in a time of severe fiscal constraint, higher education policy and finance can be driven by conscious, considered decisions about how to balance the interests of students, the state, and taxpayers. The state needs to find better ways to target its scarce resources to generate the best educational outcomes for Californians. Emerging policies reflect a search for new solutions but need more consideration within the context of the broader issues raised in this paper.

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