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Finding the 'Perfect 60' for Transfer

March 21, 2008

The “perfect 60” is that elusive combination of community college credits that would, without exception, transfer, counting toward general education and major requirements alike at a California State University campus.

For several years now, the CSU System has spearheaded the so-called Lower-Division Transfer Patterns (LDTP) by Major project, an effort to develop clear packages of 60 community college units that students could follow as road maps for transfer into specific majors. "What we want to do is make it impossible for someone to say when they went to the university, 'Well, I took all this stuff at the community college and it didn't count.' Because if you followed the road map, it does count," said Jim Blackburn, director of enrollment management services for the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

It is an exceptionally ambitious effort to tackle transfer of credit difficulties, especially given the two systems' sizes. But it's all easier said than done. The slow-moving, massive process has hit a few snags -- not least, many say, because the 109 California community colleges themselves were insufficiently involved in the CSU initiative at its outset and because community college courses weren’t designed with only the CSU faculty's standards in mind. In last spring's cycle, CSU faculty reviewed 162 course outlines against predetermined "course descriptors" and accepted 99 as worthy of LDTP’s transfer-ready stamp of approval. In the cycle before that, faculty committees approved 615 of 1,271.

As that process is ongoing, CSU is now in early stages to pilot a potentially pathbreaking and potentially controversial initiative that takes the LDTP project one step further. Can the associate of arts degree -- developed under the authority of community college faculty to further a wide variety of student goals -- contain within itself that perfect bundle of CSU-approved courses for seamless transfer into particular majors?

“The beauty of this is that a student would not have to decide, ‘Well, do I want to complete the A.A. or do I want to get through the university as fast as I can?’” Blackburn said.

Degree of Control

Streamlining the transfer process from community colleges into universities is a major issue nationally. Despite the incredible numbers of articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions throughout the country (including throughout California), stories abound of community college students who find themselves unable to transfer much of their lower-level coursework upon arriving at a university. As such, these students, who are often low-income and first-generation, can find themselves facing longer, tougher, and more expensive roads to graduation.

And many don't even make it to the university -- even students who initially intend to. A report from the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles released last year, for instance, found that of every 100 first-time Latino students in the state, 75 enter community colleges -- and only 7 of them will transfer (6 to CSU campuses).

Yet, upon entering community college, 40 percent of these students said they aspired to transfer to a four-year institution.

With numbers like those as their backdrop, many college leaders describe a crisis, an unease in transfer that needs creative solutions. And with the California Community College System having recently approved new regulations providing for associate degrees with broad areas of emphasis (an A.A. in science, for instance, instead of biology), Cal State leaders saw an opportunity to see if the A.A. degree itself could be fully transferable under the auspices of the LDTP project. The system made plans to pilot the concept on a local level, at the Northridge campus in southern California and East Bay in the north. The two hope to explore this possibility with nearby community colleges.

“It’s not an effort on our part to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do but simply to indicate what we believe to be the very best preparation for coming to the university,” said Blackburn, of the CSU System office.

“We’re all about facilitating, encouraging, perhaps persuading and then checking the results to see if it works” on a local level, added Keith Boyum, CSU’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“It’s got to start with embrace of the idea among community college partners. If they don’t see a way to serve community college students well by doing this, it won’t happen. Because they’re their programs, not ours.”

Well, that’s precisely the point, some in California community colleges say.

“Transfer involves two parties, and transfer is one mission of community colleges. So we have students who enroll in community colleges for a terminal purpose and students might be sitting next to them in the same classroom who are planning to transfer. So when our faculty are designing courses and programs, they try to be responsive to both of those needs,” said Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services for the community colleges' Chancellor's Office.

“One of the concerns,” added Jeff Spano, dean of student services for the system, “is that our courses not only meet multiple purposes within our colleges but that they also transfer to multiple colleges.”

The bulk of California community college graduates who transfer move on to CSU, but a significant number do not. Generally speaking, Spano said, about 53,000 community college students transfer to CSU each year and 13,000 to the University of California System. Another 20,000 go elsewhere to any number of colleges.

“We encouraged them to work locally to see how they would match up,” Michalowski said of CSU's plan to see if A.A. degrees could be a vehicle for the LDTP goals. “We didn’t see an instant match there, but said if they could make it work with specific campuses, they were welcome to try.”

Two Systems, With Student Interests at Stake

At CSU East Bay and Northridge, the sites of the proposed pilot projects, the initiative is in its earliest days.

The two institutions were chosen in part for the close relationships they maintain with neighboring community colleges. Northridge has identified several community colleges it would like to work with, but has not yet contacted them. Officials expect to do so in the next few weeks after they clarify their own proposal, said Cynthia Z. Rawitch, the associate vice president for undergraduate studies at Northridge. She declined to name the colleges identified.

East Bay is further along in the process. On Tuesday, the university had a meeting on the topic involving the president of Ohlone College, as well as an articulation officer from one other community college, said Carl Bellone, associate vice president of academic programs and graduate studies at East Bay (he likewise declined to name the second college since they’re earlier into discussions than in the case of Ohlone College. Ohlone’s president turned down an interview request).

“I think the hope is that if people in the state see a few models and it works and it seems easy to do that it will stimulate other community colleges to do the same,” said Bellone, who described Tuesday’s meeting in positive terms, though nothing is set in stone. “Of course it’s a big thing for community colleges because it means some curricular change in the way they organize A.A. degrees.”

“The tricky thing is it has major statewide implications,” said Jane Patton, vice president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and a member of the LDTP advisory committee. She expressed concern that the idea is being piloted on a local level before going through system-wide channels. “It’s not simply going to be a local venture. That, I’m sure, is not their intent."

"If it is indeed a viable, workable idea, and if it will work on a large scale, then let's talk. Let's participate. We would be happy to explore ideas, but we really would like it to be collaborative," Patton said. “Certainly facilitating transfer is something everyone wants to do and the tricky thing is how do you want to do it? Nobody is opposed to helping students transfer but what CSU sometimes doesn’t realize is, from our vantage point, students are moving in many directions and they’re transferring to many institutions."

There are two systems and two sets of vested interests involved here, added Rawitch, of CSU’s Northridge campus. Their common hope, she said, is “that we can help students graduate in a more timely manner, but there are all the other things that mitigate against that.” At Northridge, 55 percent of transfer students graduate within three years of coming to the university, and 64 percent after four years.

“The real issue is how do we bring the community colleges on board so what they’re doing at the community colleges and what we’re doing at the system level make transfer seamless to students.”

 

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