From Community College to University: Expectations for California’s New Transfer Degrees

March 2014

The ability to transfer from community college to university is vital in California, where access to public universities is limited to the top one-third of high school graduates and all others have access to baccalaureate education through the California Community Colleges (CCC). Yet a complex transfer process has led to low transfer rates and inefficient student enrollment patterns. In an effort at fundamental reform, the state enacted legislation in 2010 requiring the CCC to develop “associate degrees for transfer” that would facilitate students’ admission to the California State University (CSU), with some guaranteed benefits. In 2012, the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Campaign for College Opportunity reviewed the progress of the reform effort and found it wanting in a number of respects. The legislature responded to the reviews by passing another bill that sought to increase student access to the new transfer pathways.

This study assesses progress at CCC and CSU in meeting the goals of the legislation since the 2012 reviews. We find that the reform is leading to the development of clearer transfer pathways for students. However, it is not yet clear to what extent the reform will reduce the number of college credits students take along the new transfer pathways, an important goal for two related reasons. If the excess units students often accumulate can be reduced through this reform, students will graduate more quickly and lower their own educational costs. When students move more efficiently through to graduation, space is freed up in the CCC and CSU systems to serve additional students. Despite significant progress, many community colleges still offer transfer degrees in only a few majors, and some CSU campuses accommodate the transfer degree curriculum in only some of their baccalaureate degree programs.

The mechanisms aimed at encouraging students to follow the new associate degree pathways to transfer appear to be having mixed effects. There is good alignment between student interest in transfer and the availability of transfer degrees, but awareness among students of the new degrees is low, and the problem of limited capacity in the CSU to accommodate additional students may counteract the intended incentives for students to follow the pathways. The profile of CCC students and the complexities of transfer decisions place very real boundaries on the extent to which the reform, even when fully implemented, can propel students along the envisioned “60+60” pathway to the baccalaureate, in which students earn 60 credits each at CCC and CSU. This finding emphasizes the need for realistic expectations about the impact of the new degrees.

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