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For nearly three years California’s community colleges have been working with the California State University System to comply with a state law requiring guaranteed transfer pathways for graduates of the two-year institutions. Now some state lawmakers want to nudge the process along.

Community colleges so far have created more than 800 new “associate degree for transfer” programs in 25 popular majors. While progress varies among the 112 colleges, over all the system is roughly halfway done developing the 1,654 degrees required by the ambitious legislation.

A spokesman for the system said the two-year colleges were in good shape to finish the job before a self-imposed deadline of next year.

The state's legislature, however, is considering a follow-up bill that would set a series of specified timelines for community colleges to create the various curriculums and begin offering transfer degrees.

“Although the community college and state university segments have undertaken tremendous efforts to institute the new transfer pathway,” the legislation states, that work alone is “insufficient to ensure that the associate degree for transfer becomes the preferred transfer pathway for all students across the state.”

The bill would also require the Cal State system to accept those transfer degrees wherever possible. And it would mandate that the systems create a marketing plan to get the word out about the new transfer options.

The California Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education unanimously passed the bill on Tuesday. The full state Senate had passed it in May, also unanimously.

Cal State has a neutral stance on the legislation, according to a system spokesman. The community college system has declined to weigh in on it.

Faculty leaders oppose it, however, including statewide Academic Senates for both systems. They say the legislation could undermine progress on the transfer degrees.

The bill's requirement for new transfer degrees in "areas of emphasis" rather than majors is the key sticking point for the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, said Beth Smith, the senate's president and a mathematics professor at Grossmont College.

The broader area-of-emphasis degrees might cover disciplines such as the humanities or natural sciences. Advocates for this approach say it would offer students the flexibility of earning a more general associate degree and then committing to a specific major after they transfer to Cal State. 

"These additional pathways will not help the author meet the goals of the original legislation," she said in a written statement. "It derails work already well down the road."

College leaders and faculty members deserve plenty of credit for their work on the new degrees, said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based nonprofit. But she worries about campuses that appear to be lagging. The group supports the bill.

Siqueiros said she sees “very uneven access and availability for students depending on where they live.”

The system released a chart showing how each college stacks up on the transfer pathways. Some, like the College of San Mateo and Long Beach City College, are mostly there. Others, particularly the nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District, appear to be behind schedule.

But the data might be deceiving, according to officials at community colleges. That’s because there is a backlog in the processing and approval of new degree programs at the system level.

The Los Angeles area colleges, for example, have added several new degrees that were not included in the system’s latest status update.

Double Degree Holders

Community college students tend to fare well after they transfer, according to newly released research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

More than 60 percent of students who transferred in 2005 to a four-year institution eventually earned their bachelor’s degrees, the study found. The nonprofit clearinghouse tracks 94 percent of the nation’s college students.

However, students who first earned a credential from their community college were more likely to succeed at the four-year level. About 72 percent of students who earned a certificate or associate degree before transferring later earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the research, compared to only 56 percent of those who transferred without a credential.

The national college completion push has helped spark efforts to encourage more students to earn an associate degree before transferring -- or even after they have left college, in the case of Project Win-Win. That effort, which the Institute for Higher Education Policy is leading, helps institutions identify students whose records qualify them for an associate degree. Colleges then retroactively award those degrees. Last week the project's leaders said it had awarded degrees to 4,260 students so far.

The completion “agenda” has little chance of hitting its own ambitious goals without making progress with California’s huge community college system, which enrolls 2.4 million students.

The system’s transfer rate isn't good. Only 23 percent of California’s degree-seeking community college students transfer within six years, according to the Campaign for College Opportunity.

The 2010 bill aimed to improve that rate while also shortening students’ time to graduation.

Community colleges are under plenty of pressure to make that happen, primarily through the creation of new transfer degrees. But the state is also requiring Cal State campuses to do their part by accepting transfer students from the two-year system.

Under the law any California community college student who completes an associate degrees for transfer with at least a 2.0 GPA is guaranteed admission to Cal State. And those students get priority admission to their local campus over their peers who transfer without a degree.

However, that doesn’t mean that the new transfer degrees are a ticket to entry at any Cal State campus. Some, like San Diego State University, or the San Jose and Long Beach campuses, receive far more applications than others. And critics say Cal State doesn’t always do a good job of steering community college transfer students to another campus if they are rejected by their first choice.

The proposed legislation seeks to fix this by requiring Cal State to create a systemwide “admissions redirection process” for transfer students.

Both Cal State and the community colleges have more work to do on the new transfer pathways. But officials at the systems said they are on the right track.

So far Cal State campuses have introduced about 900 pathways that match up with the transfer degrees. Those tracks are designed to give junior standing to community college students who transfer in with the new degrees, so their 60 incoming credits count toward bachelor's programs.

“This is something that we knew was going to take a long time to put together,” said a spokesman for the Cal State System. “By no means are we dragging our feet.”

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