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Understanding the barriers students face on the transfer pathway is key to improving transfer outcomes. Successful transfer from community college to a four-year university has the potential to improve access, completion and racial equity gains in higher education and produce the educated workforce that California needs. Yet, today’s student-transfer journey remains complex due to structural barriers inherent in the systems, policies and practices across institutions and segments.

California has made significant progress in improving transfer pathways and opportunities. The Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) and the underlying Transfer Model Curriculum (TMC) are co-created among discipline faculty across segments. Recent legislation has led to the unification of the transfer general education pathway among the public segments of higher education. Additionally, laws being implemented will achieve common course numbering for the community college system and a pilot of ADTs for the University of California system. These initiatives hold great promise of easing students’ transfer journey, as do the dual admission pilots underway. There is much to celebrate.

However, much more needs to be accomplished to ease students’ journeys and strengthen the ADT pathway. There must be a clear understanding of how policies and practices within California’s public higher education systems have created significant and systemic barriers that impact and complicate students’ experiences. To come together to craft recommendations that reduce excess unit accumulation, eliminate repetition of courses and increase the number of students who transfer through the ADT pathway, we must shift to a mindset that all California students are our students, collectively, and work together in close collaboration across segments and campuses to both understand the systemic barriers students face, and then dismantle and reimagine a truly streamlined, simplified and student-centered transfer experience.

What Are the Key Barriers?

To understand the complexity of the barriers to transfer for students, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office recently launched an interactive website “Five Barriers to Transfer for California Students: Why Coordination Is the Path Forward.” This interactive experience leverages the latest data and research on transfer to break down the challenges into five significant barriers impacting student journeys.

A snapshot of a website in a browser

California Community Colleges
Five Barriers to Transfer for California Students: Why Coordination IS the Path Forward

The barriers to transfer featured in this interactive tool are:

  1. Distinct Systems: Transfer pathways are not standardized across California’s higher education systems. Each system approaches transfer frameworks differently. Facing uncertainties such as admission decisions and availability of financial aid, students are unlikely to commit early in their journey to one system and campus path, complicating their course-taking requirements.
  2. Varying Campus Requirements: Transfer pathways are not standardized across campuses within systems. Many ADT students cannot transfer with a guarantee to their local university in a “similar” program of study due to the variability of local campus requirements.
  3. Pathway Complexity: Current transfer tools cannot simplify this complex process enough for most students to navigate independently. While multiple transfer tools exist, they are best paired with counselors to help students gain clarity. However, there are not enough counselors; the recommended counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 370, but the statewide average is 1 to 508.
  4. Uncertain Credits: Limiting credit mobility significantly impacts costs for students and the state. Credits that are accepted at one campus might not be accepted at another. Eighty-two percent of students who were able to transfer all of their credits graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting college compared to 42 percent of students who lost any amount of credit.
  5. Disjointed Financial Aid: There is no unified process across systems to help students map out a complete path to a bachelor’s degree with financial aid. At community colleges, students must make decisions impacting financial aid—such as courses, pathways and degrees—without knowing which four-year college they may be admitted to.
Distinct Systems
varying Campus Reqs.
pathway Complexity
Uncertain Credits
Disjointed Financial Aid
Transfer Pathway

Students often face more than one of these five barriers on their transfer journey. For example, one student described how she was facing an extra year of school after her earned credits didn’t transfer. She is likely to run out of financial aid before she graduates and now must make plans to go to school part-time and work longer hours to be able to afford tuition and rent. While the transfer pathway is meant to be linear, the student experience shows that it is far from it.

Improving the Path to Transfer

According to a recent report by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Tracking Transfer: Community College and Four-Year Institutional Effectiveness in Broadening Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” just 33 percent of community college students enrolled in fall 2015 transferred to four-year institutions, and of those transfer students only 48 percent earned a bachelor’s degree in six years. While California’s transfer outcomes compare generally well to the national averages, there is room for improvement overall and for our diverse student populations.

When Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2021 to improve the path for community college students to transfer to a four-year university, leaders in higher education were called upon to examine the transfer process to identify barriers and make recommendations for improvement. California’s higher education leaders have been hard at work pinpointing obstacles and offering solutions to improve transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment. In December 2023, the AB 928 Committee presented a final report detailing 18 recommendations to create a student-centered transfer ecosystem for all Californians. The Committee offered these recommendations emboldened by the strong belief that the state of California must dramatically improve equity in transfer student outcomes to sustain a productive workforce in California, improve the well-being of the state’s residents and provide fair opportunity for social and economic mobility. Building on the Vision for Success (2017–2022) and aligning with Governor Newsom’s higher education goals, California Community Colleges launched Vision 2030 in 2023.

Vision 2030 envisions a higher education system that is more inclusive of all Californians and ensures access points for every learner across race, ethnicity, region, class and gender to enter a pathway, with tailored supports. It also provides exit points to transfer to a four-year institution, completion of a community college baccalaureate degree, or obtaining a job with family-sustaining wages. Support for successful transfer outcomes and bachelor’s degree attainment are embodied in Vision 2030’s three goals: Equity in Success, Equity in Access, and Equity in Support, within which Equitable Pathways to Baccalaureate Attainment is the first strategic direction of this seven-year transformation plan for California community colleges.

The interactive is a great opportunity to grapple with how the barriers to streamlined transfer pathways are truly systemic and should be shared widely. Coordination and collaboration are the path forward to better standardize, simplify and streamline the student transfer process. As we work in collective unity across systems and segments to center students’ experiences and needs, we can craft solutions to eliminate these barriers and build on our current successes to design a transfer journey that maximizes students’ access to higher education and effectively supports them as they move into the success they are more than capable of.

Aisha N. Lowe, Ph.D. is the Executive Vice Chancellor in the Office of Equitable Student Learning, Experience, and Impact, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

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