Luis Rodriguez, 20, works on math problems in the computer lab at Napa Valley College. Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice

A new law offers community college students more degree options to transfer into Cal State campuses. Credit: Deanne Fitzmaurice, Napa Valley College

Community college students will have more opportunities to transfer into California State University with a degree that’s guaranteed to help them graduate faster under a controversial bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown days before the deadline to take action on this session’s legislation.

Senate Bill 440, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, puts more teeth and more choices into a bill he sponsored three years ago, SB 1440, which created the Associate Degree for Transfer Program. Yet faculty leaders at both community colleges and Cal State take issue with the latest bill, which they say adds more complexity to the difficult and lengthy process of creating transferrable course units and represents a legislative intrusion into academic policy.

The earlier legislation required community colleges and the university to agree on courses and associate degrees in about two dozen majors that, once completed at the community college level, would be accepted for full credit by Cal State. Students who complete the lower-division transfer degrees are guaranteed a spot at one of the CSU campuses as juniors. In all but a handful of majors, they’ll only need to earn another 60 credits, the equivalent of about two years as full-time students, to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

But progress was slow. Padilla introduced SB 440 after the state Legislative Analyst’s Office reported uneven progress by the state’s 112 community colleges and 23 Cal State campuses in implementing the transfer degrees. Padilla said the degrees were needed to streamline the transfer from community college into four-year universities, which has not been highly coordinated between the systems and has been complex and difficult for students to navigate.

“While both the California Community Colleges and the California State University have made progress in implementing (SB 1440), they have fallen short,” said Padilla in a statement Oct. 10 when Brown signed the follow-up legislation. “Community college students deserve a clear and certain pathway to admission to California State University and a college degree.”

‘Areas of emphasis’

Community College and Cal State officials said they were moving as fast as they could given the time and effort required to get both systems to agree on curricula for upwards of two dozen transfer degrees.

But what really concerns them about SB 440 is that it adds new categories of community college majors to the transfer program that Cal State officials say are so broad they’re not sure it’s possible to make them fit into the guarantee. The new categories are called “areas of emphasis.” Instead of a major in biochemistry or anthropology, an area of emphasis degree could be in the broader category of general sciences, or social and behavioral sciences, for instance.

That’s inconsistent with the goal of SB 1440, argues Diana Guerin, chair of the CSU Academic Senate. She said the new categories require community colleges and CSU to create majors that are both comprehensive enough to fit a variety of concentrations within a subject yet narrow enough to fulfill the course prerequisites for specific majors.

“Asking us to prepare a student for all of those areas when they are taking two years of a transfer curriculum is the opposite of what we’re trying to get them to do. We’re trying to get them to focus in so they’re ready for upper-division work,” Guerin said. “The question is, can we put together a meaningful set of courses at the lower-division level that will help students transfer and complete a degree? Our initial research is that it will be very tough.”

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima

Supporters say that’s a mischaracterization of Padilla’s bill. The original intent of SB 1440 was to provide flexibility for students, said Jessie Ryan, associate director of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity, which co-sponsored the bill.

“The hope had always been to create a pathway that would be the preferred pathway for community college transfer students statewide, and in order to do that you have to have flexible degree options and acknowledge that students don’t always know day one as they enter a community college what major they want to transfer into,” Ryan said.

Since the bulk of coursework toward a major occurs once a student has transferred into a university, a lower-division associate degree in an area of emphasis allows students to focus on rigorous general education coursework while also doing “some exploration in those critical first couple of years of their college journey,” she said.

Padilla’s urgency on this issue stems from the abysmal completion and transfer rates at the state’s community colleges, and what that means for the students and the economy. A 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Sacramento State University, called Divided We Fail, found that six years after enrolling, 70 percent of “degree-seeking” community college students had not transferred to a university, nor had they completed a certificate or degree.

“For California to compete in the 21st century economy, we must dramatically improve the rate at which students transfer from community colleges and graduate from four-year universities,” Padilla said in the Oct. 10 statement.

Mission control

To some extent, Padilla’s bills put in a place a key component of the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education – more than half a century after it was adopted. The master plan, a blueprint mapping out how the public colleges and universities should work in California, identified “the transfer function” from community colleges “as a central institutional priority of all segments of higher education.”

Credit: Legislative Analyst Office

Credit: Legislative Analyst’s Office

But as the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded in its status report, “Despite this emphasis by the state, however, (community college) students often must navigate a complex maze of transfer course requirements which can make accessing and completing a baccalaureate program difficult.”

Neither SB 1440 nor SB 440 specifies how many transfer degrees must be established, but does require them for the most in-demand subjects, such as psychology, math, physics and business administration. So far, 25 transfer degrees have been approved, yet not every community campus offers all the programs.

A recent survey by the Campaign for College Opportunity found a wide range of access to the transfer degrees at the state’s community college campuses. According to the survey, only 18 community colleges had at least 80 percent of the degrees in place, while 34 were only halfway there. In some cases entire community college districts are lagging. Out of nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District, all but two were far behind schedule in developing the transfer degrees required under Padilla’s original bill.

“That, to us, is an issue of equity,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign. Where students live shouldn’t determine whether they have access to all the transfer degrees available, she said.

There were some late amendments to SB 440 that made it more palatable to faculty at CSU and community colleges. Initially, the bill included the specific areas of emphasis that colleges had to establish. Padilla agreed to withdraw that after the faculty senates of both systems voted to oppose the bill. The Cal State Academic Senate switched to a neutral position afterward.

But faculty are still irked that advocacy groups and lawmakers keep trying to set academic policy.

“It’s possible that good people have what they think are good ideas, but when you implement them you might have to go in a different direction,” said Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. “Faculty should make the determination of whether that’s the best path for students and we’re not sure that it is and that’s our concern with the legislation.”

That legislation is now law, however, and a bigger challenge for the colleges is whether there’s enough room at CSU for the transfer students. Many campuses had closed their doors to spring transfers during the recession, but accepted students with transfer degrees under SB 1440. Still, the transfer guarantee doesn’t extend to a specific campus. Under SB 440, Cal State has to offer transfer students a place at another campus if their first choice has run out of room.

The program is still new and the numbers of students taking advantage of it reflect that. The statewide Community College Chancellor’s Office is still waiting for the fall census figures that will tell how many of their students are enrolled in the transfer degree program. Just under a thousand students were participating as of last spring. When numbers for the current semester are in, the chancellor’s office expects that to double.

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