California’s community college system provides more than 1.8 million students access to high-quality academic programs. But California’s policies regarding community colleges too often limit our institution’s abilities to serve their communities by restricting the types of locally driven programs and degrees that can be offered. This is unacceptable.
Assembly Bill 928, currently in the final stages of implementation, is a prime example. Its intent was to ease the transfer pathway by creating a single path for community college students to transfer to both the University of California and California State University systems. When it first passed, it seemed unlikely to have any impact on community colleges at all. Advocates for the bill told EdSource that a single pathway should be relatively simple: UC could accomplish the goal simply by using the previously designed CSU associate degree for transfer model, but with an enhanced GPA requirement.
But now, the committee responsible for implementing the law is insisting on creating a new pathway and overriding the objections of community college faculty, administrators and students. In particular, UC system representatives are seeking to limit the breadth of education that qualifies for transfer at community colleges. The new transfer path will eliminate lifelong learning, self-development, and kinesiology programs that have been a key part of the community college mission for decades. Community colleges have invested resources into courses that now face an uncertain future, threatening to disproportionally impact first-generation, low income, and students of color. In an attempt to influence the final plan, the California Community College League board of directors unanimously approved a resolution at its December 2022 meeting advocating that the community colleges’ mission be preserved.
A companion to the single transfer path discussion is a renewed initiative to create a common course numbering system across all three systems. This seemingly simple idea (English 101 is English 101, right?) is not new. The community colleges board of governors had a task force for this topic as early as the mid-1990s. The reality is that we already have a common course numbering system through the associate degree for transfer program. Mapping 116 colleges to 23 state universities and nine UC campuses will take tens of thousands of hours — hours that could be better spent improving teaching and service.
Of greater concern to community colleges is that renumbering and aligning do not guarantee a more efficient transfer of courses from the community college system. In the early 2000s, the Utah System of Higher Education embarked on a similar project among its nine colleges and universities. As the project developed, Utah community colleges found themselves fighting to retain courses that had transferred for years but were now suddenly deemed to be courses that can only be taught by university faculty. Having watched the AB 928 process cut core elements from the community college mission, it is not unreasonable to think that the common course numbering process will further limit access for community college students.
Over the past 10 years, our colleges recognized that we can be the access point for the most vulnerable students in California while establishing pathways for success. The results have been astounding. The number of degrees awarded remains at high levels in spite of the loss of enrollment during the pandemic. Awards granted in 2022 were more than 40% higher than the number issued just five years prior. In November, UC President Michael Drake extolled the virtues of transfer on Twitter, noting that “nearly a third” of UC students had transferred from a community college.
A final way that California community colleges are restricted in serving our students is the overly burdensome rules in place for community college baccalaureate degrees. Half of all states now offer community college baccalaureate degrees with amazing outcomes for their students while California has only dipped its toe into this pool, authorizing 17 of the system’s 116 colleges to provide baccalaureates so long as they don’t “duplicate” programs at a CSU campus. Compare that to the 34 colleges in the state of Washington that offer more than five dozen Bachelor of Arts degrees designed to address local economic needs.
California is desperate for workers with bachelor’s degrees, and a recent study from the UC Davis Center for Community College Leadership and Research showed that the California community college baccalaureate degrees are benefiting students. This is particularly critical in the several areas of the state where access to any CSU campus is limited. Students in northern Santa Barbara County (Allan Hancock College) and San Luis Obispo County (Cuesta College) are each more than 100 miles from a California State University campus that will accept an associate degree for transfer for admission. Unfortunately, political headwinds fueled by institutions and interest groups limited access to four-year degrees for the Californians who need them the most.
The primary resistance to community college baccalaureates appears to be from CSU institutions and faculty groups that are passing resolutions that seek to provide CSU faculty veto authority over community college programs. In a state that is the nation’s equity leader, I can think of no policy as regressive as this one.
California must harness the power of our community colleges to bring about equitable change. As the California Community Colleges board of governors reaches the final stage of appointing a new chancellor of the system, it should focus on hiring a new leader who will insist on standing shoulder to shoulder with leaders of the University of California and California State University systems.
The mission of California’s 116 colleges cannot be limited by external entities if the state truly seeks to harness the power of our system to drive the economy of the future.
Kevin G. Walthers, Ph.D., is the superintendent/president of Allan Hancock College, in northern Santa Barbara County. The author acknowledges support from several community college presidents across the state in the writing and editing of this commentary.
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