Last month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, guaranteeing community college students who earn certain associate degrees meant for transfer acceptance into a California State University baccalaureate program with junior status. And though the intent of the legislation is to simplify what many students report is a scattershot transfer process, the work California community colleges and CSU must do to achieve this goal by next fall is complicated and will test their resolve in the wake of the state’s recent budget crisis.
The new legislation charges California community college districts to develop and grant associate degrees explicitly meant for transfer. It stipulates that these degrees should consist of 60 credit hours, all of which must be eligible for transfer to CSU. The degrees must consist of courses to meet the CSU general education breadth requirement. Also, at least 18 credit hours should be within a single major or area of interest. The legislation explicitly states that no additional local graduation requirements may be added.
While many states, community colleges and four-year colleges talk about articulation, the new California law is unusually ambitious in scope and notably detailed on just how to make it work. It also could lead to more standardization of the community college curriculum across the state's vast system of two-year institutions. Given that many community colleges and their students complain that past articulation efforts haven't had enough backbone, and given California's large population, the law is likely to be closely examined by many states.
Under the California law, if a student completes one of these associate degrees with at least a 2.0 grade point average, then CSU must guarantee him admission with junior status. The legislation states that students with these degrees should be given priority admission, ahead of those who transfer without such a credential. There is, however, a catch. Admission to specific majors or campuses is not guaranteed, though attempts will be made to give students their preferences.
Once these students are at CSU, the legislation continues, they should not be required to repeat courses that are similar to those taken at community college that counted toward their transfer associate degree. Additionally, CSU cannot require these students to take any more than 60 additional credit hours for majors that require 120 credit hours overall for baccalaureate degree completion. Both of these provisions directly speak to the complaints of community college graduates about their experiences all over the country.
Easier Said Than Done
The California Community Colleges and CSU Chancellor’s Office have already started working together to figure out how their institutions will ensure that this transfer guarantee can be ready by next fall. But while CSU can make sweeping changes as a system, California’s 112 community colleges technically operate independently of one another, potentially making transfer alignment between the two sectors difficult. That’s where the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges comes in.
“The most important caveat is that these new degrees will need to accomplish two ends: prepare students for transfer and comprise an associate degree,” wrote Jane Patton, academic senate president, in a recent letter to faculty groups around the state. “Although the bill does not mandate a statewide solution, it would not make much sense if 112 colleges devised 112 different responses to the bill. One hundred and twelve different solutions would not provide simplicity or clarity for students and would not encourage the intersegmental discipline discussions that we know would improve student preparation.”
Patton’s group is convening groups of faculty members from the community colleges and the CSU campuses in various disciplines to develop a “transfer model curriculum,” or rough outline of what courses “are appropriate for an associate degree, providing a foundational understanding of the discipline, and prepare the students for transfer to any CSU.” So far, first drafts of transfer curriculums for 11 disciplines have been made and are awaiting further vetting by other faculty groups around the state, Patton told Inside Higher Ed. She expects final drafts for many of the more popular disciplines before the end of this academic year.
And though local colleges can “take or leave” the final models ultimately produced by the statewide Academic Senates, Patton explained, those that do adopt them will virtually guarantee “fast-track” approval by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Those institutions that decide to go their own way will likely face a longer approval process along to the way to ultimately assuring that they meet the new state law. Though Patton was uncertain whether any of the state’s two-year colleges would choose to create their own degrees, she dismissed concerns that the templates being developed by her group would “homogenize” community college curriculums throughout the state.
“I don’t know that homogenization is what’s happening here,” Patton said. “This is a coordinated and concerted effort to ensure that we make transfer possible with more consistency. There are plenty of local varieties and options for students to take. Also, this isn’t the only option available to students. The other [associate degrees] aren’t going away, but this will be a very targeted degree for those that are interested.”
Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College and member of a new task force charged with carrying out the new transfer legislation, echoed Patton’s sentiment. Any “standardization” of community college curriculums across the state, he argued, is worth it if it increases student completion. Oakley admits, however, that his institution, located near two CSU campuses, will likely have an easier time complying with the new legislation than some other community colleges around the state.
“Some [community] colleges are more geared to transfer than others,” Oakley said. “If they’re nearby a CSU or a [University of California], then they’re expected to have those types of agreements in place. For instance, we already have a number of degrees intended for transfer. Most urban colleges do. But some of the more rural colleges in the state have other issues to focus on, such as terminal degrees or workforce development, if they don’t have a CSU or UC in the area. They may not have the full complement of transfer associate degrees.”
Oakley noted that the current transfer associate degrees available at his institution do fall short of the expectations of the new legislation because, among other issues, they require some extraneous local requirements such as physical education and health that do not transfer to CSU. Still, working from these degrees already in place plus whatever templates are made available by the Academic Senate, he said he expects his institution to be fully compliant before next fall, offering a wide variety of transfer-centric, no-frills-added associate degrees.
Working Out the Kinks
As part of a plan to meet unprecedented state budget cuts, Cal State didn't admit spring transfers this past academic year, a decision that left many community college transfer students without a public four-year institution where they could further their education. Earlier this month, however, the state legislature approved a budget that will provide new money for CSU enrollment expansion for the first time since 2007, allowing it to resume spring admission again.
Despite news of state budget expansion and the passage of new transfer legislation, memories of the recent budget cuts remain. CSU officials insist, however, that capacity will not be an issue for community college transfer students when these new degrees are introduced and honored by their campuses next academic year.
“We will accept every fully eligible student for transfer,” said Allison Jones, CSU assistant vice chancellor of student academic support. “The law mandates that.”
Jones explained that future transfer students with these new associate degrees will be given preference when filling CSU’s rolls, ahead of community college transfers without these specific degrees, transfers from UC campuses and private institutions and, ultimately, first-time freshmen, who he noted are already at the bottom of this preferential list. This means that, in theory, an incoming freshman class could be trimmed to accommodate large numbers of qualified community college transfers. Jones noted, however, that this already happens within the system in extenuating circumstances.
Officials from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office also did not think capacity would be an issue for transfers in the future.
“There are no worries about implementing this bill,” said Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services and special programs. “There’s no doubt there will be savings to ease capacity issues. It’s designed to streamline things for institutions … but, at the same time, it’s not going to solve all problems.”
The Chancellor’s Office estimates that, once implemented, the transfer changes will generate approximately $160 million annually in cost savings, providing access to about 40,000 additional community college students and nearly 14,000 CSU students annually.
Another bill signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger earlier this month, overshadowed by the larger transfer bill, could help expand this effort beyond CSU to the UC system. The secondary piece of legislation encourages the system to “consider offering guaranteed eligibility for admission” in a UC campus for students who complete an associate degree specifically designed for transfer. Unlike with CSU, however, the state legislature cannot mandate that UC accept transfers in such an all-encompassing way. Community college officials such as Patton, however, are hopeful UC will at least consider the suggestion.