Blocked Transfer

What does it say when a community college district in California sees more graduates go to private colleges or leave the state than enter public university systems?
June 14, 2011

The University of California and California State University systems have suffered severe budget cuts in recent years. Due to enrollment constraints, some community college students have had to wait years to get into a UC or CSU campus. Sensing opportunity, many private and out-of-state public institutions have stepped up their recruitment of California community college students.

But transfer relationships between the state’s community colleges and the UC and CSU systems are traditionally strong, and observers have been left to speculate whether any relative outsiders have been successful in luring students from the traditional transfer path. Now, research from the second-largest community college district in California suggests that private and out-of-state public institutions may be out-recruiting the UC and CSU systems in their own backyards.

Earlier this month, the Los Rios Community College District — which has four colleges in the Sacramento area — released a study of its transfer students. It found that “many more Los Rios students are transferring to in-state private and out-of-state public and private colleges and universities than to UC and CSU campuses.” In 2009-10, Los Rios transferred 2,222 students to UC and CSU campuses and 3,213 students to “in-state private and out-of-state public and private colleges and universities.” (Los Rios researchers did not count transfers to for-profit institutions; doing so likely would have made the state universities' share of transfers even smaller.)

The most popular transfer destinations were in-state private institutions — Chapman University enrolled 151 students, the University of the Pacific enrolled 120, the University of San Francisco enrolled 106, and the University of Southern California enrolled 98. Some of the most popular out-of-state public transfer destinations were located in neighboring states — the University of Nevada at Reno enrolled 55 students, the University of Oregon enrolled 44, Arizona State University enrolled 34, and Oregon State University enrolled 31.

Transfers from Los Rios Community College District

  2007-08 2008-09 2009-10
In-State Private or Out-Of-State Institution 2,564 2,647 3,213
California State University 2,277 2,266 1,652
University of California 622 594 570

All years prior to 2009-10, Los Rios transferred more students to UC and CSU campuses than to private or out-of-state institutions. And though Los Rios officials admit that they are not surprised by the new figures, they say that the statistics offer “critical insights” into the current state of higher education in California, and that they hope the information helps “inform state policy.”

“It shows what a bright bunch of students we have,” said Brice Harris, the Los Rios chancellor. “But it also shows the increasingly failed promise of the California Master Plan [for Higher Education]. This is not the way it’s supposed to work. And it’s not really the fault of the universities or even the state. It’s just a bad set of circumstances that’s led the state to not fulfill its commitment. Now, there are an awful lot of higher education institutions around the country that are beginning to take advantage of California’s fiscal circumstances and attract, recruit and retain our students.”

While Harris sees those students who leave California as contributing to a potential “brain drain,” he also worries about those who stay behind. The study also revealed that in 2009-10, another 5,012 Los Rios students became "transfer ready" — completing the required 60 units of transfer coursework -- but had yet to transfer. Harris said he fears that most of these students are “place-bound individuals” who are waiting to get into a nearby public university campus to continue their education.

“I saw a student on campus a few days ago who I knew had reached the transfer threshold, and I asked her if she was through at [Sacramento State University] yet,” Harris said. “She said she was still on a waiting list there but said she was going to stay at [Sacramento City College] to take another nine units. Now, I don’t want to discourage her from doing that, but that’s a perfect example of what’s going on in our system. She’s taking courses that probably some other student needs because she can’t get into the receiving institution."

Sacramento State University is still the top CSU transfer destination for Los Rios students, but annual transfers to it dropped 30.2 percent — from 1,910 students to 1,334 — over the five-year period from 2005-06 to 2009-10. Over that same time period, annual transfers to UC Davis, the top UC destination for Los Rios students, remained relatively static, dropping by only 2 percent, from 346 to 339. And Davis officials note that that figure has improved in the past two years; they cite a 39.7 percent enrollment increase in transfers from Los Rios from fall 2009 to fall 2010.

Still, Sacramento State officials say they are continuing to work with Los Rios officials to strengthen their “coordinated advising effort." And though Sacramento State officials say they are working on “improved communication to students,” they are dubious of Los Rios’s figures about students who are transfer-ready but have decided not to move on.

“We have space for transfer students and we have been able to provide them with course loads at virtually the same rate as has been the case for the past many years,” wrote Joseph Sheley, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Sacramento State, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “In addition, we have been working hard on our graduation initiative ... to streamline students' progress to the degree. Thus, it is not fully clear why students who are transfer-ready are remaining, apparently for up to three years, at Los Rios campuses instead of transferring."

Sheley also cautioned that there are not enough data to characterize what happened in 2010 at Los Rios as a “trend.”

“Private and some out-of-state public four-year universities have increased their recruiting efforts in California, offering both financial aid and pledges of quicker progress to degree,” Sheley wrote. “Students have been listening to these messages and, in some cases, have found them more appealing than in the past."

Los Rios May Be Outlier

The study released by Los Rios earlier this month — and subsequent media coverage of it — is generating buzz and starting many conversations about transfer in California, just as Harris hoped it would.

Since Los Rios researchers used data from the National Student Clearinghouse — which cost money — in addition to institutional records, they admit that many community college districts in California may be unable to replicate the kind of comprehensive review they conducted. And many districts contacted by Inside Higher Ed noted that they did not have the capacity for such research.

Still, the San Diego Community College District, the third-largest in the state, was able to share such information, and its data tell a much different story than those of Los Rios. In 2009-10, San Diego transferred 1,841 students to UC and CSU, whereas it transferred only 1,084 students to in-state private or out-of-state institutions. Officials note that, looking back five years, the district has consistently transferred the majority of its students to UC and CSU. Given that UC and CSU have a significant price advantage over most private and out-of-state institutions, this should come as no surprise.

UC system officials also dismissed the notion that their institutions are losing their appeal among California community college students.

“During these difficult budgetary times, UC has continued its ongoing efforts to increase enrollment of community college transfers,” Ricardo Vásquez, spokesman for the UC Office of the President, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Despite the need to curtail new student enrollment at the freshman level, UC has increased transfer enrollment targets by 1,000 students over the past two years — targets which we have exceeded."

Transfers from California Community Colleges

  2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11
California State University 54,971 49,770 37,647 39,410
University of California 11,914 12,377 13,717 15,572

Claudia Keith, a CSU spokeswoman, said she believed that the data presented by Los Rios were "probably abnormal” among the 72 community college districts in the state. Still, she acknowledged that total transfers into CSU have fallen in recent years and took a particularly steep dive in 2010, when the system closed spring enrollment altogether for community college transfers. Demand for CSU among transfers, however, has continued to increase, growing from 89,200 applicants in 2007 to 108,912 applicants in 2010.

And though Keith touted a recently signed bill in California — which creates transfer-specific associate degrees at community colleges that, once completed, guarantee students entrance to CSU as juniors — as a potential solution to these difficulties, she admitted that CSU will have to close spring admissions once again if the state follows through on current plans to cut another $500 million from its budget.

For many private and out-of-state institutions recruiting California community college students, though, the blood is already in the water.

“Some [private] institutions have begun to recognize that community college students are really good students,” said Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. "One of the good things about [the economic troubles in California] is that community college students, who were farmed to one system or the other, now have a lot more choices. I think that competition is a good thing for California.”


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