Resistance greets pumped-up effort to streamline community college, CSU transfer

August 6, 2013
Foothill College biology major Hiba Dada (l) said she saw some information about the transfer program on the college website. Classmate and fellow bio major Jannah Bashar said she never heard about it despite visiting her counselor often. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource Today.

Foothill College biology majors Hiba Dada, left, and Jannah Bashar. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource Today.

When a long-awaited and much-needed bill to streamline transfer from community colleges to California State University passed the Legislature three years ago, it had sweeping support: unanimous approval among lawmakers and a list of backers more than 80 deep. All is not so harmonious for its younger sibling, Senate Bill 440, which would compel campuses to move faster to develop transfer degrees. 

Despite a spate of amendments in recent weeks, including several just released Monday, prominent community college and CSU officials and organizations have voted to oppose the bill by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, when it comes up for a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

“In its current form, SB 440 will undermine the extensive progress in establishing transfer pathways from California Community Colleges to the CSU,” wrote the Cal State Academic Senate in its May 2013 resolution against the bill.

Sen. Padilla introduced SB 440 as a follow-up to his earlier bill, SB 1440, after a 2012 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that although there has been progress in developing the transfer degrees, implementation is uneven from campus to campus.

SB 1440, called the Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, passed in 2010 and seeks to accomplish what California’s Master Plan for Higher Education recommended half a century ago: a clear and smooth pathway for community college graduates to transfer into CSU and receive full credit for all of their undergraduate courses. Under the bill, community colleges and CSU have to collaborate on developing 60-unit transferable associate degrees that guarantee students who complete them will be admitted to California State University as juniors and will need only another 60 credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

For each transferable major, faculties from both systems have to develop a model curriculum and approve the content of each course. There are currently associate degrees of transfer in 23 majors, including anthropology, computer science, physics, English and psychology. But some campuses have been slower than others to implement them. That’s where SB 440 comes in.

Stagnant or stymied

Using figures from March 2012, the LAO found that “60 percent of community colleges have four or fewer associate degrees for transfer” out of a possible 16 approved for transfer at that time. It didn’t seem likely that the colleges would meet the goal set by the Community College Chancellor’s Office for 80 percent participation this fall, and 100 percent a year from now.

“We’ve had some community colleges really embrace the spirit of the bill and not limit themselves to two (majors),” Sen. Padilla told the Fresno Bee last week. “But some are still more resistant and slower to come along, so we needed to put more teeth in the bill.”

A year after the LAO report, however, implementation had picked up considerably. As of the end of June, just 11 percent of community colleges had four or fewer associate degrees for transfer, according to the monthly update on SB 1440. Deputy Chancellor Erik Skinner said they’ve approved 805 transfer degrees at the state’s 112 campuses and another 850 are in progress.

“We’re actually quite pleased at the rate of implementation,” said Skinner, acknowledging that there was a backlog at the chancellor’s office early on when they were

inundated with applications from the colleges seeking approval of the transferable degrees. However, at the time, the community college system was just beginning to recover from more than $800 million in cuts. “There are aspects of implementation that have been slowed because of lack of resources,” Skinner said.

It also takes time to write new curricula, said Kimberlee Messina, vice president of instruction at Foothill College, just north of San Jose. Foothill is one of the colleges cited for being slow to comply.  It had just two transfer degrees, psychology and sociology, in place by the end of June, according to the monthly update. What that report doesn’t show, Messina said, is that Foothill has 11 degrees in the pipeline and four others awaiting approval by the state chancellor’s office.

Messina said there’s a “lack of understanding” of the lengthy process required to approve a new or revised curriculum. Faculty develops a program and brings it to a curriculum committee. If the committee signs off, then it goes to the chancellor’s office. At any point in the process there is likely to be some back and forth before it’s approved.

“For us, a year is not dragging our feet; it takes that long,” Messina said.

Is broader better?

One of the biggest issues with the bill is around what are called areas of emphasis. SB 440 would require transfer degrees in more general subjects such as natural sciences, humanities or social sciences. Faculty said those topics were too broad and wouldn’t adequately prepare students for upper division work at CSU or a job if they decided not to continue on after earning an associate degree.

“The broad categories do not serve us very well with these particular pathways to CSU,” said Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.

Smith said these degrees would undermine the purpose of SB 1440. “The point of 1440 was the students knew exactly what they had to do at community colleges and they knew exactly what they had to do at CSUs,” she said.

In the latest version of SB 440, Sen. Padilla has removed the specific areas of emphasis included in the earlier bill and leaves it up to the colleges to decide on the subjects instead of the Legislature. The measure does still contain timelines for those degrees, giving colleges until fall 2015 to implement two areas of emphasis and until fall 2016 for another two.

Those changes aren’t enough to convince opponents to change their positions.

The language in the bill on this issue is still problematic, said Lizette Navarette, a legislative advocate for the Community College League of California. “Areas of emphasis will be difficult to align to the pathways and clear parameters created by SB 1440.”

“I think we fundamentally disagree with that argument,” countered Audrey Dow, community affairs director for the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that seeks to make college affordable and accessible. The Campaign was a key sponsor of SB 1440 and has been corralling support for SB 440. Dow added that community colleges and CSU already agreed to develop area-of-emphasis degrees because they were included in the original bill.

Getting students on board

Some 50,000 students a year transfer from California community colleges to Cal State. Since SB 1440 took effect in the 2011-12 academic year, about 1,300 of them have taken the transfer degree path. Some officials say the low number may just be a factor of how new the program is, but Dow said marketing is not what it should be.

“You always want to look at your options,” said Foothill College student Gurjeet Ghuman. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource Today

Another provision of SB 440 calls for colleges to mount an advertising campaign to inform students of the transfer degrees, although the bill doesn’t provide any funding to help schools pull that together.

The Campaign for College Opportunity interviewed about 200 community college students across the state and found that 90 percent of them had never heard of the program.

“These are students who are actively engaged in their campuses,” Dow said. “Whether they’re in student government or they’re in some sort of leadership group, they have no idea that the degree is available.”

A casual sampling of students studying in the grassy courtyard of the math and science buildings at Foothill College came up with similar results.

“I never heard about the transfer AA degree. I visit my counselor often and never heard about it,” said 20-year-old Jannah Bashar, a biology major who’s headed to the University of Toronto this fall.  “I’m not sure if it would have been helpful because I don’t have enough information.”

A fellow biology major sitting next to her, Hiba Dada, 19, said she remembers hearing about the program at the beginning of the year. “I think I saw it once on the school website,” Dada said. It wouldn’t have interested her anyway, said Dada, because she planned on transferring to the University of California. She’s on her way to UC Davis, which is accepting her biology units.

At a nearby table, 21-year-old Gurjeet Ghuman initially demurred, saying he wouldn’t have considered the program because he never intended to earn an associate degree. Ghuman, also a biology major, is transferring to San Francisco State in the fall and eventually wants to become a veterinarian.

“There’s not really a specific degree for my major,” he said. But after a moment’s consideration he added, “I definitely would have considered it; you always want to look at your options.”

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