California community colleges show little progress in student graduations and transfers

March 18, 2019

The library at Los Angeles City College.

California’s community colleges are making some gains toward ambitious goals of getting more students to complete degrees and transfer to universities but the small improvements last year were “disappointing” and show that much work remains ahead, the system’s leader said Monday.

“While there is some progress, it is not acceptable progress,” system chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley told EdSource. The statistics were included in his “state of the system” presentation Monday to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

The report shows minimal improvements: a less than one percent increase last year in the number of students who earned degrees or credentials and a three percent rise in students who transferred to University of California or California State University campuses.

Oakley acknowledged that it is “not going to be easy” to reach the targets he and the board previously established for 2021-22, known as Vision for Success.

Still, Oakley said that academic reforms adopted in the past two years will hasten improvement and allow the colleges to hit the targets for their 2.1 million students by 2022.

Among those changes are more counseling and programs of courses designed for students to graduate faster and complete requirements needed to transfer to four-year universities. The community colleges also are changing how students are placed in introductory math and English courses, allowing many to avoid the remedial classes that slow them down.

The Board of Governors adopted a plan in July 2017 that set goals to push the 114 community colleges for better performance. Those targets include a 20 percent increase in the number of community college students who acquire associate’s degrees, credentials or occupational certificates and a 35 percent rise in the number of community college students who transfer annually to a University of California or California State University campus.

However, very small gains were registered last year in the overall credentials and degrees awarded within three years of a student starting college. The number of students who finished increased less than one percent, up just 188 to 126,689 in 2017-18, according to the report. To reach the 20 percent increase by 2021-22, that number will have to rise to 151,801. Asked by a board member at the meeting whether he thought the current rate of change was acceptable, Oakley said: “The answer is simply no.”

The colleges showed more progress in bolstering the transfers to the ten-campus University of California or the 23-campus California State University. Those increased about 3 percent last year, or up 2,691 to 85,870. To reach the target of 112,292, that growth would need to jump to about 7 percent annually.

Board member Geoffrey Baum said that the report “shows us how much work we have to do.” At the same time, he raised concerns that UC and CSU might not have room for many more community college transfers unless state funding for their enrollment grows.

Several board members noted a development out of the community college system’s control: the significant decline in the number of students who transferred to universities in other states or to private California schools, both non-profit and for-profit. That dropped from 53,028 in 2017 to 40,196 last year. Officials attributed that decline mainly to the closing of several for-profit chains and more students deciding not to take the risk of enrolling in one of those for-profits and to take jobs instead.

Meanwhile, Oakley said it was significant that there was a growth in the number of students who earned one of the relatively new associate degrees for transfer, which clearly tell students what courses they need to take. The number of students earning such degrees increased 3,331 to 41,160 last year, while the goal is for 51,069 in three years. Oakley said he expected continued gains.

There is progress toward one of the goals: the percentage of community college graduates with a certificate or an associate degree who landed jobs in their fields of study grew three percent last year, to 71 percent. The target is 76 percent. “This is some positive news,” Oakley said.

A tiny change was recorded toward the goal of stopping students from taking unnecessary classes. Many community college students, often unsure of their majors or careers, take many extra courses beyond the 60 credits usually needed for an associate degree. On average, students took 91.5 credits in 2017-18, down from 92 the year before. The goal is to reduce that to 79 by 2021-22.

In a related matter, the board adopted regulations to implement a new state law, which requires that students be given alternatives to remedial courses starting in fall 2019 and that placement methods be overhauled. Much of the new rules tell colleges how to implement the alternative math and English courses, usually known as co-requisite classes, that contain extra academic support and time so students can succeed. Placement tests that kept students in remedial courses are being phased out, too. Colleges now will mainly rely on students’ high school grades, a change that is expected to place students more directly in classes that can count for transfers to universities.

The law, known as AB 705, was approved unanimously in 2017 by state lawmakers and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. In the past, placement tests forced some students to pass as many as four remedial classes before being allowed to take a course required for transfer. Under the new law, students cannot be placed in remedial classes unless they are highly unlikely to succeed in a transfer-level course.

Board chairman Tom Epstein on Monday described the new regulations as “transformational” and said he was “excited we are putting a bow on it today.”

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