Why Colleges Should Encourage Students to Transfer

Focus of states: College students.  
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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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.”

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