Rethinking the Role of Community Colleges

As more students see the two-year schools as a step toward a four-year degree, California tries to smooth the way.

HAYWARD, CA - APRIL17: Students study in the cafeteria at Chabot College on April 17, 2012 in Hayward, California. Chabot is a community college that offers job skills training and education in areas such as nursing, accounting, mechanics, and other skilled trades. Community colleges are an affordable alternative to a four year degree at a university catering to non-traditional students.
Christian Science Monitor/Getty
Feb. 27, 2014, 4 p.m.

“I think this is one of the most im­port­ant is­sues that we have,” Na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil Dir­ect­or Gene Sper­ling said ahead of a White House high­er-edu­ca­tion and so­cial-mo­bil­ity event last month.

He wasn’t talk­ing about stu­dent loans, af­firm­at­ive ac­tion, or ca­reers in sci­ence and tech­no­logy. He was talk­ing about mak­ing it easi­er for stu­dents to trans­fer from com­munity col­leges to four-year in­sti­tu­tions.

Com­munity col­leges in re­cent years have be­come a com­mon first step to­ward a bach­el­or’s de­gree, par­tic­u­larly for low-in­come, minor­ity, and first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents. Start­ing out at a two-year in­sti­tu­tion can be a prac­tic­al op­tion for those who don’t want, can’t af­ford, or aren’t qual­i­fied to enter a four-year uni­versity right away. But in most states, the trans­fer route is an of­ten-im­pass­ible obstacle course. De­pend­ing on which sur­vey you see, at least half — and per­haps as many as 80 per­cent — of com­munity-col­lege stu­dents hope to trans­fer to four-year in­sti­tu­tions, but only about 11 per­cent earn bach­el­or’s de­grees with­in six years, ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics.

Many states have re­cog­nized that their high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tems haven’t caught up with the way stu­dents are us­ing them, and they are work­ing to im­prove trans­fer path­ways, but Cali­for­nia’s ef­fort will be the most con­sequen­tial: The Golden State’s sprawl­ing sys­tem serves about a quarter of all com­munity-col­lege stu­dents in the na­tion. By the end of this year, the state ex­pects to have fully im­ple­men­ted a 2010 law that re­quires com­munity col­leges to of­fer as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees that guar­an­tee gradu­ates ad­mis­sion as ju­ni­ors to a Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity cam­pus.

At first glance, Cali­for­nia doesn’t seem to need the new as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees. Former com­munity-col­lege stu­dents cur­rently ac­count for more than half of those who re­ceive bach­el­or’s de­grees from the CSU sys­tem and a quarter of those who re­ceive them from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia. But the sys­tem’s trans­fer suc­cess rate is lower than it might be — and lower than state law­makers would like.

There isn’t a lot of hard data on Cali­for­nia com­munity-col­lege stu­dents’ edu­ca­tion­al goals, but Colleen Moore, a re­search spe­cial­ist at the In­sti­tute for High­er Edu­ca­tion Lead­er­ship and Policy at Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity (Sac­ra­mento), has looked at the is­sue. She es­tim­ates that just 23 per­cent of com­munity-col­lege stu­dents whose tran­scripts sug­ges­ted they were pur­su­ing some kind of cre­den­tial even­tu­ally trans­ferred to a four-year uni­versity. The Cali­for­nia Com­munity Col­lege sys­tem, meas­ur­ing dif­fer­ently, says about 40 per­cent of stu­dents who want to trans­fer do so, ac­cord­ing to Moore.

And al­though they are a ma­jor­ity of Cali­for­nia’s com­munity-col­lege at­tendees, His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents are less likely to trans­fer to four-year uni­versit­ies than are their white and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an coun­ter­parts.

“We have found that Latino stu­dents are about half as likely to trans­fer as white stu­dents are, out of the com­munity col­leges. And black stu­dents are less likely than white stu­dents, as well,” Moore says. In ad­di­tion, His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents who do trans­fer to four-year schools are much more likely to trans­fer to for-profit in­sti­tu­tions, where gradu­ation rates are typ­ic­ally lower.

The new de­grees are ex­pec­ted to help in a num­ber of ways.

First, they’ll cer­ti­fy that a stu­dent has com­pleted fresh­man and sopho­more course work that aligns with com­mon uni­versity ma­jors. Un­der Cali­for­nia’s old sys­tem, re­ceiv­ing in­sti­tu­tions differed in the num­ber and types of com­munity-col­lege cred­its they ac­cep­ted and the courses they re­quired for cer­tain ma­jors. Stu­dents who suc­cess­fully trans­ferred of­ten ended up re­tak­ing classes, wast­ing time and money.

The de­grees are also ex­pec­ted to help mo­tiv­ate and guide stu­dents by guar­an­tee­ing them ad­mis­sion to CSU — al­though not ne­ces­sar­ily to the cam­pus or pro­gram of their choice.

“The single most im­port­ant thing for stu­dents is the level of pre­dict­ab­il­ity,” says Cali­for­nia Com­munity Col­leges Chan­cel­lor Brice Har­ris.

Put­ting the de­grees to­geth­er has been a la­bor­i­ous pro­cess. It’s taken about three years for com­munity-col­lege and CSU fac­ulty mem­bers to come up with statewide tem­plates for 25 ma­jors, and for the schools to start of­fer­ing the ne­ces­sary classes. Last fall, the state Le­gis­lature passed a fol­low-up bill prod­ding the high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem to hurry up. By the end of the year, the com­munity-col­lege sys­tem plans to have rolled out the last 800 of 1,800 planned de­grees across 112 cam­puses. 

Not all com­munity col­leges will of­fer all de­gree op­tions, but the sys­tem hopes to serve as many trans­fer hope­fuls as pos­sible. So far, more than a thou­sand stu­dents have taken ad­vant­age of the de­grees.

Cali­for­nia takes its cue from Flor­ida, which since the 1970s has guar­an­teed as­so­ci­ate’s-de­gree hold­ers ad­mis­sion as ju­ni­ors to state uni­versit­ies. In Flor­ida, as in Cali­for­nia, the ma­jor­ity of high school gradu­ates who pur­sue high­er edu­ca­tion do so at a com­munity col­lege. Half of all Flor­ida as­so­ci­ate’s-de­gree hold­ers trans­fer to a state uni­versity.

The new de­grees could help ease the pres­sure on Cali­for­nia’s uni­versity sys­tem by re­du­cing the num­ber of courses stu­dents have to re­take. But if too many stu­dents take ad­vant­age of the pro­gram, giv­en Cali­for­nia’s high­er-edu­ca­tion ca­pa­city is­sues, the state could be hard-pressed to main­tain the trans­fer guar­an­tee. In the early years of the re­ces­sion, state budget cuts forced uni­versit­ies to lim­it en­roll­ment and com­munity col­leges to turn away half a mil­lion stu­dents, Har­ris says. The high­er-edu­ca­tion budget has since in­creased, but it re­mains volat­ile. 

Cau­tions Har­ris: “This … as­so­ci­ate de­gree for trans­fer sys­tem is very likely to put in­creased pres­sure on CSU, as stu­dents come out of our col­leges with those de­grees in hand and ex­pect there to be room at the inn.”

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