A decade ago, the process to transfer from one a California community college to a California State University campus was broken, and most state leaders knew it.
“Transfer was incredibly complicated, there were literally thousands of different ways that students could transfer from a community college to the CSU or UC system and there was no consistency,” said Audrey Dow, vice president at The Campaign for College Opportunity, a higher education advocacy group based in Los Angeles.
Thousands of students enrolled in community college as a stepping stone to a four-year university. The idea was that students would spend two years at a community college taking classes that fulfilled lower division university requirements and spend less money in the process.
But, according to Dow, only about four percent of students at the time transferred from a community college to a four-year university in two years. Many of the students who did transfer did so with many more units than they needed while other students became frustrated with the pace and dropped out, without earning an associate degree.
In 2010, to fix those problems, Sacramento lawmakers signed a law to create the Associate Degree for Transfer. Community college students who sign up are guaranteed transfer to a Cal State campus if they take and pass a prescribed list of classes in their major, 60 units in all. The process takes about two years. Students then begin Cal State as juniors, take another 60 units of classes for their major and two years later are ready to graduate.
The seven year-old program is starting to see its first large batches of students earning Cal State bachelors degrees, which is now allowing state leaders, advocates, and researchers a look at whether the program is working.
“It does look like it’s working,” said UC Irvine education researcher Rachel Baker.
In the 2012 – 2013 academic year, California community colleges awarded about 5,000 of these degrees for transfer. Three years later, about 31,000 people earned this degree. More than 83 percent of the 11,000 students who earned one of these transfer degrees in the 2013-2014 academic year transferred to a Cal State campus within two years. The degrees for transfer were nearly a quarter of all the two year degrees awarded by CA community colleges that year.
“We’re asking two huge institutions, very important institutions, to play ball and play by the same rules,” Baker said.
To make the degree program happen, faculty groups in each system had to agree on each other’s list of classes for dozens of majors. There are 114 community colleges in California and 23 California State University campuses. Each year, more than 100,000 students transfer from California’s community colleges to four-year universities.
Some of those students are giving the program a thumbs up for its ability to put their college career in high gear.
“My husband works three jobs and I’ve not been working for three years,” said Tegan Hetzel-Dobbins, a marketing major at Cal State Long Beach. “I have to graduate next year and I have to work full time so that he doesn’t have to work on the weekends.”
She had a clear goal when she enrolled at Long Beach City College three years ago. She’d worked in marketing at Ghirardelli and felt like she hit a ceiling because she didn’t have a college degree.
The degree also appears to be helping a different kind of student: high school graduates who suffer from a very common lack of focus about what major they want to be when they grow up.
“I didn’t really have that good of an idea of what I wanted to study,” said Jaclyn Kaufman, an accounting major at Cal State Long Beach.
She found out about and signed up for the degree program three years into taking classes at community colleges in the San Diego area.
“Once you get into your four-year university you’re guaranteed to graduate in 60 units. For me it meant a lot, because I would be graduating in two years instead of the possibility of having the university require me to take more classes to graduate,” she said.
Kaufman didn’t take longer because she was wasting time. She spent several months after high school graduation traveling in South America and worked several full time jobs, all experiences that she would not give up and that she said will enrich her as a person and as an employee. She would not have those experiences under her belt if she would have signed up for the transfer program right after high school.
This dynamic underlines a major shift in higher education in California and the United States: how much choice do we give students entering college.
“We don’t limit choices like that in selective schools, so students who go to UCLA or [UC Berkeley] are not given this kind of guidance, and are told to explore and find themselves and take all these different classes. We think college is a time for exploration, we don’t say that about students in community colleges, we say, get on a track and stay with it,” said researcher Baker.
State leaders say that programs like the Associate Degree for Transfer help individual students and the state because California faces a college graduate deficit: by the year 2030 the state is expected to be short more than one million college graduates because more and more jobs in the future will require some college education.