New report: Community college isn't a cheaper route to a university

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The Campaign For College Opportunity released “The Transfer Maze: The High Cost to Students and the State of California.” The report’s subject matter is students like Marisa Vasquez, a media studies major at Santa Monica College.

“I’ve been going to Santa Monica for four years,” she said. “I was kind of floating around trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”

That floating around led her from a marketing major, which was so not her, to photography, photojournalism and now journalism.

According to the report, nearly 40 percent of community college students will take six years to transfer to a four-year university. Vasquez said it’ll take her about five years.

Transferring, the report says, remains bureaucratic, inconsistent and confusing. The bottom line is that time is money.

“To piece together classes across different community colleges, to navigate ever changing course work, it ends up costing students time, it ends up costing money,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Taking so long to transfer, she said, ends up costing students more than $36,000 to earn a degree when you add up tuition and other costs such as living expenses.

“It’s more complex than that,” said Deborah Harrington, dean for student success and innovation at the Los Angeles Community College District. The UCs and CSUs don’t have the capacity to take all transfers. On the other hand, she said, community colleges should be seen as more than just engines for transfer. “We’re a mini-university,” she said, signaling that many students enter only seeking a two-year degree.

The main goal of Dow’s group is to advocate for colleges and universities to implement policies to allow more students to enroll in universities. It also lobbies public officials to fix policies that act as barriers that keep students from enrolling. To that end, she said, she plans to talk about the findings of the report at the University of California Regents meeting on Thursday.

The report comes as leaders from California’s public education systems are carrying out reforms to change policies that do more to keep students out of higher education than to improve their academic performance. Educators are working to increase the number of college graduates in order to fill the need predicted for future job markets. The community colleges are an important starting point for California’s public universities. According to the report, 67,000 students transferred to a UC or CSU campus in the fall of 2016.

While some observers of the issue don’t agree entirely with the report’s details, they do agree that it’s identified the most urgent issue.

“Students are in a maze, and the even if you find your way out of a maze you’ve gone down a lot of wrong turns, slow turns, and diversions even if you get to the end,” said Clive Belfield, professor of economics at the City University of New York and a researcher of community college transfer.

Changing transfer policies is difficult, he said. There are many layers of committees in both institutions that need to agree on policies in order to make it easier for students. He’s seen important changes, such as California’s five-year-old Associate’s Degree for Transfer.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, more than 61,000 students transferred to a California State University campus with that degree. The report recommends officials in public schools and community colleges do more to promote that degree to students.

The University of California has a similar program called Transfer Admission Guarantee at six of the system’s nine campuses.

The report proposes opening the program to UC’s most competitive campuses: Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego.

A UC spokesman did not respond to a request to comment on whether the university would consider expanding the program.

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