Why Colleges Should Encourage Students to Transfer

Focus of states: College students.  
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
June 2, 2014, 1 a.m.

SANTA MON­ICA, CAL­IF. — No com­munity col­lege in the state of Cali­for­nia suc­cess­fully trans­fers more stu­dents in­to the elite Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia sys­tem than Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, and it doesn’t take much time on this sun-splashed cam­pus to see why.

Even be­fore stu­dents ar­rive here, they are sur­roun­ded with mes­sages de­signed to en­cour­age their move to a four-year school after they fin­ish a two-year de­gree. The school’s ubi­quit­ous ads on Santa Mon­ica city buses an­nounce that it is “No 1 in trans­fers.” Its ex­pans­ive coun­sel­ing de­part­ment nudges stu­dents to map out an aca­dem­ic plan for trans­fer al­most as soon as they step on cam­pus. The school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has pressed pro­fess­ors and aca­dem­ic de­part­ment lead­ers to bang the gong about pur­su­ing a four-year de­gree. “If you walk in­to the ath­let­ic de­part­ment,” says Daniel Nan­nini, the co­ordin­at­or of the school’s Trans­fer Cen­ter, “they can talk to you about trans­fer.”

Few states have de­voted as much en­ergy as Cali­for­nia to im­prov­ing the trans­fer pro­cess between two- and four-year schools. But it may be an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated op­por­tun­ity to broaden op­por­tun­ity in a high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem that many crit­ics fear is evolving in­to a strat­i­fied two-tier struc­ture that does more to harden than dis­solve class di­vides.

Some ex­perts be­lieve that one way to both re­strain costs and ex­pand di­versity across the high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem is to build a stur­di­er bridge between two-year schools, which en­roll dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of low-in­come, minor­ity, and first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents, and the elite four-year uni­versit­ies, where stu­dents from mostly white, mostly af­flu­ent fam­il­ies still fill most seats. As a Cen­tury Found­a­tion task force on com­munity col­leges con­cluded last year, “Among the most prom­ising strategies of re­du­cing strat­i­fic­a­tion [in high­er edu­ca­tion] is to find ways to con­nect what are now sep­ar­ate two- and four-year in­sti­tu­tion­al silos.”

Cali­for­nia is about to provide per­haps the na­tion’s largest test of that pro­pos­i­tion. The nine-cam­pus, roughly 230,000-stu­dent Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia sys­tem already ranks among the na­tion­al lead­ers for se­lect­ive in­sti­tu­tions in ac­cept­ing com­munity col­lege trans­fers. In mid-May, the Uni­versity Re­gents re­ceived a re­port from a task force that con­cluded the sys­tem could do much more to “stream­line and strengthen” the trans­fer pro­cess. “They are a na­tion­al lead­er on trans­fers,” said Richard Kah­len­berg, who dir­ec­ted the Cen­tury Found­a­tion com­munity col­lege study. “And now they are try­ing to go deep­er.”

The Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia task force, which was ap­poin­ted last Decem­ber by Janet Na­pol­it­ano, the sys­tem’s new pres­id­ent, poin­ted to many pos­it­ive trends in the sys­tem’s hand­ling of trans­fer stu­dents. Over­all, the re­port noted, 29 per­cent of the sys­tem’s en­ter­ing stu­dents in 2012-13 ar­rived as com­munity-col­lege trans­fers. That was slightly be­low the sys­tem’s goal of one-third but re­mains “unique na­tion­ally” and much high­er than the num­bers at many schools that are com­par­ably rig­or­ous in their ad­mis­sions.

Just over half of the ad­mit­ted trans­fer stu­dents, the study found, were first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents, slightly above the pro­por­tion in the fresh­man class. Per­haps most im­press­ively, the study found that 86 per­cent of trans­fers gradu­ated with­in four years after ar­riv­ing, al­most ex­actly equal to the 84 per­cent of fresh­man stu­dents who fin­ish after six years.

But oth­er meas­ures were more troub­ling. The ana­lys­is found that one-fourth of all com­munity-col­lege trans­fers in­to the UC sys­tem came from just sev­en cam­puses, with Santa Mon­ica Col­lege lead­ing the list (with 783 trans­fers). Half of the trans­fers came from just 19 of the state’s 112 com­munity col­leges — many of them loc­ated in af­flu­ent areas like Cu­per­tino, Pas­adena, Santa Bar­bara, and San Diego.

That con­cen­tra­tion helped ex­plain the in­con­gru­ous find­ing that the trans­fer pipeline ac­tu­ally di­min­ished the UC sys­tem’s ra­cial di­versity. Al­though Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and His­pan­ic stu­dents make up nearly 46 per­cent of the state’s huge com­munity-col­lege stu­dent body, they rep­res­en­ted only about 25 per­cent of those who trans­ferred in­to UC. That was ac­tu­ally less than their share of the en­ter­ing fresh­men class for the UC sys­tem.

To en­cour­age more demo­graph­ic and geo­graph­ic di­versity, the re­port re­com­men­ded that UC build part­ner­ships with the com­munity col­leges that send few stu­dents in­to the trans­fer pipeline; in­crease its vis­ib­il­ity on every two-year cam­pus; broaden its own dir­ect out­reach to com­munity-col­lege stu­dents; ex­pand the trans­ition ser­vices it provides to trans­fer stu­dents; and, per­haps most im­port­ant, es­tab­lish more con­sist­ency in the course re­quire­ments that each UC cam­pus sets for ad­mis­sion.

Santa Mon­ica Col­lege’s suc­cess at guid­ing stu­dents to­ward four-year in­sti­tu­tions cap­tures the op­por­tun­ity that might be avail­able if more com­munity col­leges, in Cali­for­nia and else­where, stressed a cul­ture of trans­fer. SMC’s former pres­id­ent, Richard Moore, es­tab­lished trans­fer as a pri­or­ity in the 1980s, and the school has now de­veloped a thick ar­ray of ser­vices to en­cour­age it among its 30,000 cred­it-tak­ing stu­dents.

The school’s class sched­ule gives stu­dents many chances to ob­tain the courses that four-year in­sti­tu­tions re­quire. With 45 full-time and 70 part-time coun­selors, it provides ex­tens­ive guid­ance on the trans­fer pro­cess, schedul­ing not only gen­er­al work­shops and reg­u­lar vis­its from “ad­mis­sion eval­u­at­ors” at nearby four-year col­leges, but also ses­sions on the spe­cif­ic re­quire­ments of each sys­tem. Near the ap­plic­a­tion dead­line in the fall, it staffs “pan­ic rooms” for stu­dents com­plet­ing their ap­plic­a­tions. “We sit with them, we hold their hands, we read their es­say,” said Brenda Ben­son, the col­lege’s dean of coun­sel­ing and re­ten­tion.

Yet, Nan­nini ar­gues, no mat­ter how many ser­vices either com­munity col­leges or re­ceiv­ing schools provide, the com­plic­ated lives of many com­munity-col­lege stu­dents, who are of­ten bal­an­cing com­plex work and fam­ily de­mands, make it dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish a re­li­able as­sembly line of trans­fer-ready ap­plic­ants. An ori­ent­a­tion ses­sion on cam­pus this week for stu­dents who were trans­fer­ring in the fall to Loy­ola Mary­mount Uni­versity, a loc­al private school, showed that al­most all of them took cir­cuit­ous routes that re­quired over­com­ing dead ends and wrong turns be­fore com­plet­ing their two year de­gree, usu­ally after many years of per­sever­ance.

Ad­onis Bur­rell, for in­stance, star­ted at Santa Mon­ica Col­lege in 2006, but struggled with his classes and dropped out. After sev­er­al years in the work force, though, he re­turned (“I real­ized I needed to get more edu­ca­tion” to get ahead, he says) and after nav­ig­at­ing work and school for three years, he is fin­ish­ing a de­gree in com­mu­nic­a­tions in June. Sarah Yoseph entered Santa Mon­ica Col­lege dir­ectly from high school in 2010 and is fin­ish­ing her de­gree now after chan­ging her ma­jor three times and bal­an­cing mul­tiple part-time jobs.

Sev­er­al of those at the Loy­ola ses­sion, which may be a self-se­lec­ted group, said they found the UC trans­fer re­quire­ments un­duly daunt­ing. Bur­rell, for in­stance, said if he tried to take all of the vary­ing courses that UC Berke­ley and UCLA re­quired to even con­sider him for ad­mis­sion, “I thought, there is no way I am go­ing to get out of here [at Santa Mon­ica Col­lege] on time.”

Some of that dif­fi­culty is the in­ev­it­able res­ult of a highly se­lect­ive uni­versity sys­tem try­ing to main­tain stand­ards while reach­ing deeply in­to a com­munity-col­lege pop­u­la­tion whose aca­dem­ic skill var­ies widely; in one sense, the high gradu­ation rate for the sys­tem’s trans­fer pop­u­la­tion demon­strates that UC has set the bar at the right level in terms of the pre­par­a­tion it is de­mand­ing.

But Michele Siqueir­os, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cam­paign for Col­lege Op­por­tun­ity, a group that ad­voc­ates for ex­pand­ing ac­cess to col­lege in Cali­for­nia, says UC has ad­ded un­ne­ces­sary bar­ri­ers by al­low­ing its cam­puses to main­tain di­ver­gent re­quire­ments for trans­fer.

While Siqueir­os praises the task force re­port as a “pos­it­ive step” for ex­pand­ing ac­cess, she says it should have gone fur­ther in re­quir­ing the UC cam­puses to uni­fy be­hind com­mon course re­quire­ments for trans­fer — as the less se­lect­ive Cali­for­nia State sys­tem has done un­der a 2010 state law. “Be­cause there are so many path­ways and so many choices [at UC],” she says, “stu­dents are hav­ing a hard time fig­ur­ing out how to get there.”¦ The UC sys­tem should be able to align their re­quire­ments for the dif­fer­ent ma­jors with­in the sys­tem, and that would al­low stu­dents to pre­pare.”

Steve Mon­tiel, the dir­ect­or of me­dia re­la­tions for Na­pol­it­ano, says con­trol of the ma­jor re­quire­ments rests not with the sys­tem’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, but its fac­ulty, which must bal­ance “the de­sire to sim­pli­fy and stream­line” against steps to en­sure that trans­fer stu­dents are equipped to suc­ceed once they ar­rive. “The in­com­ing trans­fer stu­dents need to be pre­pared to hit the ground run­ning and com­plete their de­grees suc­cess­fully and on time,” he said in an email. “This is not a cook­ie-cut­ter pro­cess.”¦ Our goal is not simply to get the stu­dents in­to UC cam­puses, but to get them out as well.

Back at Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, Ben­son sees the cent­ral chal­lenge some­what dif­fer­ently. If Cali­for­nia views com­munity-col­lege trans­fers as a way of en­sur­ing eco­nom­ic and ra­cial di­versity in its four-year sys­tems, she says, it will need to provide the two-year schools more re­sources to equip their stu­dents — many of whom ar­rive with un­cer­tain aca­dem­ic pre­par­a­tion.

Kah­len­berg agrees. “While this UC re­port is a big step for­ward,” he says, “what’s miss­ing is a com­pre­hens­ive plan to im­prove com­munity col­leges to make this am­bi­tious trans­fer pro­gram work.”

What We're Following See More »
Former Sen. Bob Bennett Dies at 82
43 minutes ago

Former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Bennett was defeated in a primary in 2010 by Tea Party–backed Mike Lee.

Libertarians Getting a Second Look?
7 hours ago
Trump Floats Gingrich, Kasich as Running Mates
7 hours ago

Newt Gringrich is actively positioning himself as a possible VP nominee for Donald Trump, according to National Review. After a New York Times piece mentioned him as a possible running mate, he said, "It is an honor to be mentioned. We need a new Contract with America to outline a 100-day plan to take back Washington from the lobbyists, bureaucrats, unions, and leftists. After helping in 1980 with Reagan and 1995 as speaker I know we have to move boldly and decisively before the election results wear off and the establishment starts fighting us. That is my focus." Meanwhile, Trump told CNN he'd be "interested in vetting" John Kasich as well.

House Dems Push on Puerto Rico, Citing Zika
9 hours ago

"House Democrats are stepping up pressure on Republicans to advance legislation addressing Puerto Rico’s worsening debt crisis by issuing a report arguing that austerity cuts can’t be sustained and have made the island more vulnerable to the mosquito-borne Zika virus." Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee released a report yesterday that argued "further sharp reductions in government spending can’t be a part of a legislative solution"—especially with a rainy season boosting the mosquito population and stressing an island health system already struggling to deal with the Zika virus.

Clapper: ISIS Can Stage Attacks in U.S.
9 hours ago

"ISIS has the capability to stage a Paris-style attack in the U.S. using local cells to strike in multiple locations and inflict dozens of casualties, according to the Obama administration's top U.S. intelligence official." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN's Peter Bergen that such a scenario is "something we worry about a lot in the United States, that they could conjure up a raid like they did in Paris or Brussels."